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Kurdish rebel leader sees Turkey pullout by August: media

A flag with the portrait of jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan is seen in front of the entrance of the Information
A flag with the portrait of jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan is seen in front of the entrance of the Information

By Daren Butler

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Jailed Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan is proposing to withdraw his fighters from Turkey by August if Ankara pushes through reforms under a draft plan to end a 28-year insurgency, media reports said on Wednesday.

Imprisoned on Imrali island near Istanbul since 1999, Ocalan has since October been discussing a deal with Turkey's government to end a conflict that has killed 40,000 people since his Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) took up arms in 1984.

Under the plan, sent to Turkey's main pro-Kurdish party as well as the PKK leadership, the rebels would begin a formal ceasefire on March 21, the Kurdish New Year, said the Sabah and Star newspapers, which are close to the government.

The PKK is estimated to have around 2,000 fighters in Turkey, with several thousand more in bases in northern Iraq.

Their withdrawal from Turkish territory under the plan would be completed by August 15, the 29th anniversary of the start of a conflict that has destabilized Turkey and held back the development of its mainly Kurdish southeast.

The 20-page "road map", handwritten by Ocalan, has not been published and the accuracy of the reports could not be confirmed. They said Ocalan was due to finalize it in mid-March.

A member of parliament from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which received the plan on Tuesday, played down the timetable in the Turkish media and said no decisions had been made.

Idris Baluken told Reuters that Ocalan had outlined his ideas in the document and had asked the BDP as well as the PKK leadership in northern Iraq and in Europe to respond with their thoughts in the next two weeks.

"Ocalan wants to know whether the government is sincere or not," Baluken said. "We want to talk positively but we have not made much progress politically."

POLITICAL REFORMS

The success of the process depends on Turkey passing reforms increasing the rights of a Kurdish minority numbering about 15 million - around 20 percent of Turkey's population.

Ocalan's plan contained no demand for Kurdish autonomy, media reports said.

"Nobody should stand up and demand anything that is aimed at harming our national unity," Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told reporters late on Tuesday.

"If they put down their weapons and leave our country, there are many places in the world they can go," he said.

During his decade in power, Erdogan has pushed through reforms boosting Kurdish cultural rights. But Kurdish politicians want wider moves, including new constitutional guarantees for the Kurds and more Kurdish language education.

Ocalan's plan seeks recognition of Kurdish identity in the constitution and the strengthening of local administration - steps that would follow a PKK withdrawal - as well the release of thousands of Kurdish activists jailed pending trial on charges of links to the PKK, Sabah reported.

Erdogan is taking a political risk with the process, given the strident opposition of nationalists to negotiating with a man they dub the "baby killer" and "monster of Imrali".

Opposition to the process may also emerge among Kurds.

Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the Kurdish BDP, sought to assuage worries on both sides.

"Turks should not be worried that Turkey will be divided and Kurds should not be worried that they will not get their rights and freedoms," he told reporters.

PREVIOUS CEASEFIRES

The PKK has sporadically declared unilateral ceasefires in the past, and in 1999 it withdrew its militants from Turkey. However, several hundred of its fighters died in clashes during that pullout and Erdogan has said this would not be repeated.

The final part of the three-stage plan envisages the closure of PKK camps in Iraq and the return to Turkey of PKK members who have not been involved in armed attacks.

Comments from both sides suggest that fighters would not be amnestied but remain in exile.

The PKK took up arms in 1984 with the aim of carving out a Kurdish state, but subsequently moderated its goal to limited self-rule. It is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and European Union.

The militants have pledged allegiance to Ocalan but voiced caution about the prospects of rapid progress towards a deal, criticizing continued military operations in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq, where thousands of the militants are based.

Militant attacks have tailed off since the process began, and Demirtas said an unofficial ceasefire was in effect. But the PKK said on Wednesday four of its militants had been killed in air strikes by Turkish warplanes in northern Iraq on Tuesday.

Among initial steps under the process, the PKK could release more than a dozen captured Turkish security forces personnel.

However, senior PKK commander Duran Kalkan said any such release would depend on what steps Turkey takes. "Nobody should expect this from us unilaterally," Kalkan said in an interview with the PKK-linked Firat news agency.

"If the (military) operations continue, the guerrilla operations will continue," he said in further comments published on Wednesday. "If the process does not develop everybody should know the response will be an intensification of the fighting."

In talks with Kurdish politicians at the weekend, Ocalan said Turkey could become as unstable as Syria or Iraq if steps were not taken to end the insurgency.

(Additional reporting by Ozge Ozbilgin in Ankara; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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