Story highlights

The Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, will pull out of Turkey into northern Iraq

The withdrawal shows that guerrilla group is committed to peace, leader says

Turkey has allowed Kurdish-language education and other identity expression recently

Istanbul CNN  — 

The Kurdish rebel group that has fought a guerrilla war against the Turkish state for the past 30 years announced it would begin withdrawing its fighters from Turkey to neighboring countries.

The field commander of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, argued that the withdrawal demonstrated his movement’s commitment to peace.

“It is the ultimate goal of not only ours but also of everyone siding with peace, brotherhood, democracy and freedom to accomplish this historic step, which will enable a solution to the Kurdish question, bring democracy to Turkey and pave the way for peace in the Middle East,” said PKK leader Murat Karayilan, according to the pro-PKK Firat News Agency.

Karayilan and thousands of his supporters and fighters have been based in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq. The PKK has maintained camps in this rugged border area, a lawless zone that has been out of the control of the central Iraqi government in Baghdad.

Karayilan said the gradual withdrawal would begin on May 8, and guerrillas would fall back across the Turkish border into northern Iraq, according to Firat News Agency.

The announcement of the withdrawal follows months of quiet discussions between the Turkish government and Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned founder of the PKK. Ocalan is being held in a Turkish jail on an island in the Marmara Sea.

A lawmaker from Turkey’s ruling political party, the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, urged all sides in the delicate peace process to act with caution.

“We are in a resolution period,” said Ayse Nur Bahcekapili. “It is a sensitive period. Everyone needs to speak and choose their words with care.”

In 2005, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made peace overtures to the PKK. But talks failed, and over the last several years, the violence escalated to deadly levels not seen in more than a decade.

Ocalan first launched the PKK’s war against the Turkish state in the early 1980s as part of a campaign to carve out a homeland in the Middle East for Kurds.

The Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Turkey, making up roughly 20% of the population. They have also long been subjected to policies of persecution and were referred to for decades as “mountain Turks.”

The war that raged across southeastern Turkey subsided when the PKK declared a unilateral cease-fire for several years after Ocalan was captured in 1999.

During Erdogan’s decade as prime minister, Turkey has relaxed laws that prosecute the expression of Kurdish identity. His government has also made some overtures to the Kurds, such as easing bans on Kurdish-language education, appearing to apologize for past discriminatory policies and launching a state TV station that broadcasts in Kurdish.