TIRED and caked in mud, the first group of Kurdish guerrillas to leave Turkey under a peace plan to end three decades of war came down a mountain into Iraq to be embraced by waiting comrades.
Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters began leaving south-eastern Turkey last week following a March ceasefire declared by jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan to end a conflict that has killed 40,000 people.
The 15 men and women dressed in baggy green fatigues walked in single file yesterday into a valley at Heror near Metina mountain. They carried Kalashnikovs and rucksacks with rolled-up sleeping mats.
“For seven days we were on the road and the conditions were very tough. There was snow, it didn’t stop raining and the road was muddy,” said one of the guerrillas called Sorkhwein, a grenade visible inside her jacket.
Ocalan was sentenced to hang after he was captured by Turkish special forces in 1999 in Kenya but this was commuted to life when Turkey abandoned the death penalty as part of reforms intended to open the doors of the European Union. The peace plan is a gamble for premier Tayyip Erdogan who could face a nationalist backlash before elections next year. But recent polls show public support for a process that could bring a degree of stability to a turbulent area bordering Iraq, Iran and Syria.
Television footage of the militants’ arrival in Iraq did not immediately feature on major Turkish broadcasters, reflecting public sensitivities.
“Our issue will be solved with the release of our leader Apo [Ocalan] from prison. Then everything will be solved,” Sorkhwein said as the rebels gathered around a campfire.
Sorkhwein was one of six female fighters in the group, illustrating the role played by women in the PKK insurgency and their wish to escape traditional gender roles.
The PKK force is small but dogged, with 3,000-4,000 fighters in the mountains of northern Iraq and some 2,000 in Turkey. The group launched its insurgency in 1984 with the goal of carving out a Kurdish state but subsequently moderated its aim to autonomy for the mainly Kurdish region of the south-east.
In talks pursued by Ocalan and Turkish officials since last autumn, Kurds have pressed for constitutional reform recognising their cultural, political and linguistic rights with an end to the stress on Turkish identity. The militants said it was now up to Ankara to address the grievances of Kurds, who make up around 20 per cent of Turkey’s 76 million population. “We ask the Turkish side to be sincere with us so we can achieve the common interest,” said Ciger Gewker, another of the arriving militants. “The next step is up to Turkey. If they deal with our move in a positive manner it will be quicker.”
Baghdad has rejected the deal that brings the PKK guerrillas back into Iraq, warning that the entry of more armed Kurdish fighters could harm Iraq’s security and add tension to already poor relations between its autonomous Kurdish region and the central government. The two sides are already in conflict over contested areas, including key oil-producing sectors.
During a session yesterday, the Iraqi Cabinet reiterated its rejection of the deal and of the presence of PKK fighters, saying it “represents a flagrant violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and independence.”
The government said Iraq will file a complaint to the UN Security Council about it. “Iraq stresses its right to defend its sovereignty and independence in ways seen proper and in accordance with international laws and decisions,” said a statement.
In Heror, PKK official Furat Jakrkhouni said a larger group is expected to enter Iraq in a week’s time.