Insight: Hopes, suspicions over peace in Kurdish rebel hideout

QANDIL MOUNTAINS, Iraq Wed Mar 27, 2013 10:45am EDT

1 of 4. Murat Karayilan, acting military commander of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), speaks during an interview with Reuters at the Qandil mountains near the Iraq-Turkish border in Sulaimaniya, 330 km (205 miles) northeast of Baghdad March 24, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Azad Lashkari

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QANDIL MOUNTAINS, Iraq (Reuters) - Shattered stone houses recall Turkish air strikes on Kurdish rebels holed up in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq. Life is harsh amid the snowcapped peaks, supplies are sparse and armed forays across into Turkey perilous in the extreme.

Yet rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan, who declared a ceasefire from his Turkish prison cell last week, may not find it easy to coax his fighters down as part of any deal to end a conflict that has taken over 40,000 lives.

"There are mixed feelings," said Ocalan's military commander, Murat Karayilan, in a hamlet below the Qandil range. "Hundreds of my comrades lost their lives at my side.

"I have to tell you, our comrades want to continue this struggle. The organization has decided on peace, but the middle level fighters are saying we can continue our war," he told Reuters. "I am working with them so they accept this as well."

The mustachioed image of Ocalan hewn into the mountainside across the valley serves as a reminder of who leads the PKK, even 14 years after his capture by Turkish special forces in Kenya. But Ocalan himself told Kurdish politicians recently he was frustrated by skepticism in Qandil about the peace process.

"I'm angry with them," he said.

The force is small but dogged, some 3-4,000 in Iraq and 1,500-2,000 in Turkey, where they have targeted Turkish troops as well as bombing cities including Istanbul and beach resorts.

Ocalan's authority as founder of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), could evaporate if mail communication with Qandil breaks down over the 1,400 Km (900 miles) separating Qandil and Imrali island. He narrowly escaped the gallows after a 1999 trial, but may yet be dispatched to political oblivion.

HAZARDOUS JOURNEY

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan risks the wrath of nationalists who fear any deal granting Kurdish demands for autonomy and broader cultural freedom would quickly relaunch a drive for full Kurdish independence. Moreover, in talking with the PKK, he treats with a grouping designated terrorists by the European Union and the United States besides Ankara.

Erdogan says forces will continue operations against the PKK as long as they do not lay down arms, but he has given assurances rebels would not be targeted as they left Turkey. Karayilan, however, wants guarantees on this from parliament.

Guerrillas said Turkish jets flew over the mountains on Monday, and PKK fighters retaliated against helicopters approaching the border on Wednesday.

"We are ready for war, but we are ready for peace, too," Karayilan said in a small room decorated with Ocalan posters. "If there are any attacks against our forces they have the right to defend themselves."

Karayilan, sporting a bushy grey moustache like Ocalan and dressed in olive green Kurdish baggy trousers and tunic, said fighters could withdraw to Qandil by autumn, with safe passage. It is however a long journey, and in the past a hazardous one.

The mountain road snaking into PKK-held territory is dotted with wreckage. A shrine holds portraits and scraps from what is described as a family car caught in a Turkish air strike. In one village, a collapsed concrete building marks where more Turkish bombs fell in retaliation for PKK attacks inside Turkey.

Below the peaks, PKK fighters brandishing Kalashnikovs wave trucks and cars through remote checkpoints that demarcate Iraqi Kurdistan from rebel-controlled land. The co-existence between the PKK enclave and the Kurdistan government, which is cultivating good relations with Ankara, is an uneasy one.

LEAVING THE MOUNTAIN

A woman who gave the nom de guerre Hevin Ciye, said she left Qandil after being imprisoned by the PKK for a month over a dispute with a superior who had refused to allow the women to wear shorts in a volleyball match. The scars of three bullet wounds on her left arm are a permanent reminder of more profound ordeals during her nine-year stay in the mountains.

"It was harder than words can describe," she told Reuters in the Iraqi Kurdish capital Arbil, where she now runs fast-food concession stands in several shopping malls. "When we left the camp (during bombing), we moved almost every night and used the rucksacks in which we carried our ammunition as pillows."

In sorties across the border into Turkey, they ate wheat mixed with water or boiled leaves and grass, bedding down in caves or under trees to evade Turkish forces.

Karayilan said talk of PKK rebels handing over their arms was still premature, before constitutional reforms to address their demands for Kurdish rights and recognition. But behind the scenes talks advance tentatively and, according to media leaks, have produced the outline of a plan.

"More than a concrete agreement, there is a mutual understanding now," said Karayilan, who was born in the same southeastern Turkish province as Ocalan, said. "There are a lot of risks in the process, but it is the right step to take."

After opening its military campaign in 1984 to demand an independent Kurdish state in the south, the PKK has moderated its demands to political autonomy and broader cultural rights in a country where the Kurdish language was long formally banned.

Many fighters are from southeastern Turkey, the Kurdish heartland where many say they faced discrimination and oppression. Erdogan took a political risk in easing restrictions on the Kurdish language and culture, winning the opprobrium of nationalists who fear a disintegration of Turkey.

CAVES AND HUTS

Life is far from idyllic, fighters moving regularly to evade air raids, sleeping in caves, in stone huts, in the woods or under canvas. Meals are largely beans, rice and meat.

The PKK promotes women's equality to recruit in traditionally male-dominated Kurdish society and female fighters in combat fatigues are much in evidence in the stronghold.

One woman guerrilla, who said she'd joined PKK ranks at 13 and spent 15 years in Qandil, knows freedoms and status she enjoys here may sit ill with a traditional Kurdish home where women are often more confined to kitchen and children.

"In our society, women are not valued. I feel my place and my value more here."

Another female fighter also had reservations about leaving the mountain after so long, and returning home.

"We cannot really leave this life," she said, sitting with a rifle in her lap. "I say to myself sometimes, if I return to live with my family, and peace and freedom is achieved, how will I leave behind the life I have gotten used to?"

There perhaps lies one of the problems - not unfamiliar to those seeking to end an insurgency. The guerrilla existence, the mountain, becomes a way of life.

"Neither female nor male fighters want to leave the free life they have in the mountains," Karayilan said. "But we have to make them believe."

The questions of disarmament and reintegration of combatants have tested peace efforts from Northern Ireland to South Africa.

Foreign mediators could be brought in to oversee disarmament and reintegration, as happened in Northern Ireland. Certainly, there is a strong element of distrust on both sides.

For PKK fighters like Botan, eight years fighting in Qandil and Turkey have shaken any belief Ankara would play its part.

"History shows me there is no room to trust the Turkish state," the former construction worker said.

The drive for peace on both sides followed from a summer when PKK attacks reached new heights and the Turkish authorities responded by arresting hundreds of Kurdish activists and renewing bombing raids on Qandil.

Truces have been declared and secret talks held with the PKK in the past, but there is a weariness on both sides with generations of young men, mostly Kurds, dying in the conflict. It is a conflict that has battered the Turkish economy and pitched the southeast into poverty.

"We are at a stage where the Kurdish and Turkish public want peace," Karayilan said. "Erdogan has to take steps to solve the Kurdish issue and put his name down in history."

(Editing by Ralph Boulton)

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