Jailed Kurdish rebel leader set to make fresh peace process call

ISTANBUL Wed Apr 3, 2013 8:45am EDT

Demonstrators hold Kurdish flags and flags with portraits of jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan during a gathering to celebrate Newroz in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir March 21, 2013. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Demonstrators hold Kurdish flags and flags with portraits of jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan during a gathering to celebrate Newroz in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir March 21, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Umit Bektas

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ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Pro-Kurdish politicians traveled on Wednesday to a Turkish island where jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan was expected to pronounce on efforts to end a decades-old insurgency that has killed 40,000 people.

A government official said a co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and two BDP lawmakers were visiting Ocalan in his jail on Imrali island, south of Istanbul.

Local media suggested the militant leader would call on his Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to begin withdrawing fighters from Turkey, despite a dispute with Ankara over terms of the pullout.

The PKK leadership in the mountains of northern Iraq has demanded legal protection to prevent any military attack on them during their planned departure after decades of fighting, a call rejected by the government.

"Ocalan will officially launch the withdrawal process," Eyup Can, editor of the liberal Radikal newspaper which has closely followed the peace process, wrote on Twitter.

The PKK declared a ceasefire with Turkey last month in response to an order from Ocalan after months of talks with Ankara to halt a conflict which began in 1984.

The next step is a transfer of PKK fighters from Turkish territory to their bases in the mountains of northern Iraq, but the militants say they could be vulnerable to attack from Turkish troops unless parliament gives them legal protection.

Hundreds of PKK fighters are estimated to have been killed in clashes with security forces during a previous withdrawal in 1999 after Ocalan's capture and conviction for treason.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has said he guarantees there will be no repeat of such fighting, but opposes legislation, instead saying the rebels should disarm before heading for Iraq to remove the risk of firefights with Turkish forces.

The PKK, designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and European Union, launched its insurgency with the aim of carving out an independent state in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey, but later moderated its goal to autonomy.

Pro-Kurdish politicians are focused on expanding minority rights and stronger local government for the Kurds, who make up about 20 percent of Turkey's population of 75 million people.

(Additional reporting by Gulsen Solaker in Ankara; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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