The Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, have begun its gradual withdrawal of some 2,000 fighters from the Kurdish region of Turkey into northern Iraq. The move is part of a new peace bid with the government in Ankara.
The PKK's jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan, called for a cease fire with Turkey in March and for the withdrawal of Kurdish fighters in southeastern Turkey. The pro-Kurdish Firat news agency reported on Tuesday that the process would begin on Wednesday as planned.
The 2,000 rebels are expected to make the journey largely on foot in the mountainous border region with Iraq. Both Turkey and the PKK have said that the process would take place quietly and without fanfare.
"The withdrawals are expected to take three or four months to complete," said Selahattin Damirtas, a pro-Kurdish parliamentarian who has played a key role in the recent political peace drive with Ankara.
No fatal clashes between the Turkish military and Kurdish fighters have been reported in recent months, the first such lull in years in an internal conflict that has claimed an estimated 40,000 lives since 1984. The PKK is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey and much of the West.
Departing, but not disarming
Turkey was seeking a promise from the PKK to disarm entirely, but the group had said it feared that this would leave it vulnerable to attack. The last attempt at a PKK withdrawal from Turkey, in 1999, was interrupted when the country's military ambushed the fighters as they sought to leave. Roughly 500 people were killed, with confidence in the peace efforts shattered as a result.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised that the PKK members leaving Turkey "will not be touched."
Northern Iraq's largely autonomous regional government is led by the Kurdish majority. The PKK has used the region as a safe zone, with Turkey complaining that it is a springboard for attacks on its territory.
The PKK is seeking democratic reforms, improved rights for the Kurdish population and better treatment of prisoners such as its leader Ocalan in return for the cease fire. Ocalan, who was jailed in 1999, called on his group to consider the new path.
"We have reached the point, where the weapons must fall silent and ideas need to speak," he said from prison. "A door has been opened that could lead from an armed conflict to a democratic one."
msh/jm (AFP, AP, dpa)