PKK `pulls out' fighters from Turkey

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THE KURDISH separatist group fighting for autonomy in south-east Turkey said yesterday it had begun pulling its forces out of the country ahead of schedule in response to last week'searthquake.

The Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, declared a full-scale ceasefire earlier this month as part of its move to become a legitimate political force. The withdrawal of its fighters into northern Iraq was scheduled for 1 September, but yesterday the group issued a statement to a German- based news agency, DEM, saying it had moved the date forward. "To unilaterally stop the war at this time of heavy disaster is the greatest support to the state and people of Turkey," the statement said.

It added that the money spent by the state fighting the PKK had hindered its ability to deal with the aftermath of the earthquake. More than 40,000 people are estimated to have died in last week's tremor, which also left 200,000 homeless.

The withdrawal could represent a turning point in the bloody 15-year insurrection, which has led to the deaths of more than 30,000 Kurdish fighters and about 5,000 Turkish soldiers, police and officials in the south-east of the country.

The end of the armed struggle and subsequent withdrawal was ordered by Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader, who has been sentenced to death for treason. Ocalan was seized six months ago while staying at a property owned by the Greek embassy outside the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

During his trial Ocalan pleaded for his life, saying: "I am ready to serve Turkey but for that I must remain alive. What will happen if I die?" He added: "I share the pain of those families [who have lost relatives]. I am sorry. I promise I will stop the spilling of blood and work for peace and brotherhood."

Ocalan's arrest brought attacks on Greek embassies around the world, including in London, and the death of 25 people. The PKK warned tourists to stay away from Turkey. Since then the PKK has steadily moved away from violence.

On 13 July it announced an end to the attacks and suicide bombings it launched in response to Ocalan's arrest. Earlier this month it announced the withdrawal of its forces from Turkey. Yesterday's statement said that the number of fighters in south-east Turkey had already been drastically reduced and that the occasional clashes still breaking out "did not originate" with the PKK.

"The leadership is trying to switch its strategy," said Professor Ilter Turan, head of international relations at Bilgi university in Istanbul. "However, I am sceptical. They are not saying they are laying down their weapons: they are just saying they are going to take their weapons somewhere else."

Professor Turan said thatthere may once have been 5,000 to 6,000 men in the PKK, whose strongholds are in the mountains, but that the number was now possibly closer to 1,500. Much of the PKK's political leadership is in Europe and some observers believe that it is these who want the movement to pursue a political path.

The rise of the PKK over the past 15 years followed years of repression of the Kurds by the Turkish authorities. Restrictions on language and culture have been eased but, there remains a ban on broadcasting and education in Kurdish.

In the south-east, where most of Turkey's 12 million to 15 million Kurds live, other Kurdish groups have been politically successful.