Kurdish rebels clash with Turkish army during withdrawal

ISTANBUL Mon Jun 3, 2013 12:51pm EDT

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ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Kurdish militants opened fire on Turkish troops in southeast Turkey near the border with Iraq on Monday, wounding one soldier, the military said, the first such incident since the rebels began withdrawing from Turkey under a peace process.

There were two bursts of gunfire in Uludere in Sirnak province just after noon (5 a.m. ET) and a Turkish Cobra attack helicopter was subsequently sent to the area, the Turkish military said in a statement.

Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas began leaving Turkish territory in small groups nearly a month ago in a bid to end a conflict which has killed more than 40,000 people in almost 30 years of fighting.

They are withdrawing to Iraqi Kurdistan, where several thousand of their fighters are based, under a plan agreed by jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and Turkish officials.

"A group of terrorists opened fire and, as a result of the shooting, one gendarmerie sergeant was slightly wounded by the one of the stones ricocheting off the ground," the army said.

A spokesman for the PKK, deemed a terrorist group by the United States, the European Union and Turkey, said he had no details of the incident, but warned the army to refrain from "provocative actions".

"I do not believe it will affect the withdrawal," Roj Welat said, adding that in recent days, Turkey had flown drones and warplanes over PKK positions.

The peace plan is a gamble for Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan who could face a nationalist backlash before elections next year. Opinion polls currently show a high level of public support for the process.

However, a wave of violent anti-government protests in Turkey has complicated the government's efforts to push ahead with reforms which Ocalan and the PKK are demanding before eventual disarmament.

Erdogan previously demanded the rebels disarm before leaving but the PKK rejected this, fearing they could come under attack as they did in a previous pullback. The PKK has warned it will retaliate if the Turkish army launches operation against them.

(Additional reporting by Isabel Coles in Arbil; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Angus MacSwan)

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