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An encounter shows Kurdish guerrillas in no hurry to abandon Turkey’s mountains

On the first day of what was supposed to be the pullout of Kurdish guerrilla forces from Turkey, there was no sign Wednesday that any units had crossed the international border, and insurgents told McClatchy it could take up to three months for them to withdraw to northern Iraq.

They also warned in an interview that under their rules of engagement, if Turkish forces break the current cease-fire, guerrillas would retaliate and resume military operations against the Turkish state.

The withdrawal was to have begun under a peace plan intended to end a 30-year guerrilla war that has claimed 30,000 lives. The government announced the agreement to great fanfare in March. One Wednesday, it acknowledged it couldn’t confirm that any guerrilla units had in fact left.

“It is hard to say with precision what is happening and at what time,” Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told reporters in Ankara, Turkey’s capital. “On this issue, Qandil may have its own calendar and dates set,” he said. Qandil is the mountainous region of northern Iraq that is the headquarters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party guerrillas.

Rank-and-file members of the group, known by its Kurdish initials as the PKK, told McClatchy they were fully aware of the withdrawal order by PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who now sits in a Turkish jail. They said they would carry it out faithfully.

But they said the weather and the distances insurgents have to travel will extend the withdrawal process, possibly into autumn.

“It’s well known that our leader has taken the decision to withdraw beginning May 8. We’re definitely going to observe this,” said Siar, 36, the commander of a unit of five PKK fighters. “Just one word from our leader is an order for us.” Siar is a nom-de-guerre; he declined to give his full name.

Siar said the route to northern Iraq traverses the Zagros Mountains, where snow is still as much as 12 feet deep in places. In addition, many PKK fighters must travel to this region in Turkey’s southeast to exit into Iraq. That’s a journey of 400 miles as the crow flies and could be a lot longer trek on foot.

A full PKK withdrawal could change the face of Turkey, especially if the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reciprocates with a series of political moves demanded by the Kurds. These include allowing Ocalan, now in jail on an island near Istanbul, into perhaps some less restrictive form of detention, the release of thousands of pro-PKK Kurdish politicians now in Turkish prisons, and a liberalization of laws restricting the use of the Kurdish language and culture.

But Kurds, who comprise 14 million of Turkey’s 80 million population, according to CIA figures, and the PKK in particular are wary of the government’s intentions. Memories are still bitter over events in 1999, when under the cover of a cease-fire government forces killed 500 retreating PKK guerrillas.

It isn’t clear how many guerrillas actually are going to withdraw. Turkish and U.S. officials say there are 1,200 to 1,500 PKK fighters in Turkey, but the PKK says there are several times that number.

The PKK rarely agrees to interviews in Turkey. But since March 21, when political allies of Ocalan read his letter calling for a cease-fire and withdrawal before a throng of 1 million in Diyarbakir, which is regarded by Kurds as their capital, numerous Turkish journalists have traveled to Qandil to interview PKK officials.

In an hour-long conversation under a big oak tree at the edge of a river in the Bestler-Dereler mountains near Sirnak, an area where the PKK has moved freely for decades, five uniformed PKK members explained the instructions under which they are operating.

The men, who said they were about to pull out of a temporary position, were all in their 20s and 30s. Siar, 36, began by chiding a visiting reporter for arriving unannounced, but he acknowledged that the first day of the pullout was reason enough to stop and talk.

“Have you ever been to Kurdistan before?” one of the men, who called himself Ali, asked, referring to the area of Turkey where the interview took place as well as Kurdish majority regions of Iraq, Iran and Syria. “Is this Kurdistan?” replied the visitor.

The men carried Kalashnikov rifles and tucked their black and white sashes under their bandoliers. They would not allow photographs or recordings and insisted that cellphones be shut off (though their location was far beyond cell range). A few minutes into the conversation, one appeared with a big teapot and an offering of cucumber and tomato salad, fresh flatbread and hard cheese with herbs of a type that is sold at local markets here.

In 2011 elections, politicians sympathetic to the PKK enjoyed more than two-thirds support from voters in the province of Sirnak.

“Our movement will abide by six principles,” said Ali, who said he was 27. So long as the PKK guerrillas are not attacked, “they will observe the policy of non-aggression,” he said. But if attacked, the forces “will use their legitimate right of retaliation, and restart military operations.” Moreover, it is up to the Turkish army and state to ensure there is no provocation. Finally, units will withdraw “to the south,” a reference to northern Iraq, “in the same way as they came.”

There was no sign the men were thinking about abandoning their weapons or their calling. Ali, who said he’s from the Sirnak area, has been in the PKK for the past eight years, and Siar, a Kurd from Afrin, in northern Syria, has been in the PKK for 17 years. “We’re going to go wherever the party sends us,” he said.

For men who eschew contacts with the outside world, they seemed well informed, asking a visitor about the possible motives of the ethnic Chechen brothers accused of bombing the Boston Marathon – and offering condolences for those who died.