ANKARA, Turkey — Kurdish rebels will start withdrawing thousands of guerrilla fighters from Turkey on May 8 and retreat across the border to northern Iraq, a rebel commander said Thursday according to a pro-Kurdish news agency, in an important milestone toward ending the nearly three-decade old insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives.
In a news conference held in northern Iraq's Qandil mountains, rebel commander Murat Karayilan said the extraction would be gradual. He warned, however, the retreat would come to an "immediate" stop should the rebels be attacked as they leave Turkey, according to Firat News, an agency that is close to the rebels.
The decision to leave Turkey and retreat to bases in northern Iraq comes a month after the rebels declared a cease-fire, heeding a call by jailed rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is engaged in talks with Turkish officials to end the fighting. Ocalan had also asked his group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, to leave Turkey as part of the peace efforts.
"The withdrawal will be gradual, in groups," Karayilan, who took over the PKK's leadership after Ocalan's capture and imprisonment in 1999, said. "It will be completed in the shortest time possible."
"Withdrawal will stop immediately if there is any attack, operation or bombing of our guerrilla forces and our forces will use their right to reciprocate," Karayilan warned.
Karayilan made clear the fighters' wouldn't withdraw unarmed. He said the PKK would only disarm once Ocalan and other Kurdish militants are released from prison. Turkey had demanded that the fighters lay down weapons and retreat unarmed.
The rebels were hesitant about an unarmed withdrawal without legal assurances from Turkey that the guerrillas wouldn't be attacked as they leave.
Turkish forces reportedly attacked PKK guerrillas as they retreated in 1999 while obeying orders from Ocalan, who had appealed for peace soon after his capture.
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