About 600 terrorists pulled out according to PKK figures

10 September 2013 /TODAY’S ZAMAN, İSTANBUL – The terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has claimed that 600 militants have left Turkish soil since May 8, when the group began to withdraw as part of a settlement deal struck between the group’s jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan, and the Turkish government.

However, the PKK recently announced a halt to the withdrawal, citing the government’s failure to fulfill its promises as its motivation. The PKK demands freedom for Öcalan and the commencement of Kurdish-language education in the school system, claiming that the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government has made no progress on either of these demands. The Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) Şırnak deputy, Hasip Kaplan, said recently that the end of the withdrawal does not necessarily indicate an end to the settlement process.

The PKK announced on April 25 that it would be withdrawing from Turkey in accordance with negotiations between it and the Turkish government that began on May 8. Sources within the PKK say 29 groups of 17–22 militants have already left Turkey and passed into Iraqi territory.

Turkish government officials, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have complained of the slow pace of withdrawal. In August, they said roughly 20 percent of the PKK’s militants had left of Turkey, according to Turkish intelligence sources. Whether this percentage matches the PKK’s figures is unknown.However, earlier this week an organization called the Kurdistan Communities’ Union (KCK), which functions as an executive body for the terrorist group, announced that the PKK has halted withdrawals indefinitely. KCK head Cemil Bayık said recently, speaking to PKK-affiliated news agencies, that the PKK was suspending the withdrawal, reiterating earlier complaints that the government was not completing its side of the bargain.  In comments to the Voice of America radio station on Sept. 10, the BDP’s Kaplan said that the fate of the withdrawal will ultimately be decided by a democratization package that the government is expected to announce in the next 20 days. Kaplan also said it will be up to PKK leader Öcalan to decide what its next step will be regarding the process.

SE residents worried

Meanwhile, many civil society groups based in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey have expressed concerns about the future of the settlement process. There have been no attacks in the region for the past 9 months thanks to the ceasefire, and the idea of terrorist attacks returning to the region is a nightmare for many residents. “The process absolutely cannot fail,” said Tahir Elçi, head of the Diyarbakır Bar Association. He said the “peace and settlement process” is “vital and historic” in the history of “the peoples of Turkey.” He continued: “The government should understand society’s expectations and take the necessary measures. A democratic constitution is needed, and education in one’s mother tongue should be given constitutional guarantees.” He also said Turkey required changes to guarantee the right to a fair trial, as well as reform of its current Anti-Terrorism Law (TCK), under which hundreds remain imprisoned as suspects in trials of the KCK’s activities.

Aladdin Korkutata, head of the Diyarbakır-based businessmen’s association DİGİAD, said it was not realistic to expect a 50-year-old problem to be solved within a few months. “The business world and social life here have relaxed. There is no chaos, no fights. Undermining the settlement process will do no good to anyone.”

Faruk Alpaslan, head of the Van based artisans’ union VESOB, said: “I call on everybody in every corner of the country. Please do not disturb this peace we have; please contribute to peace with all you can.”

Similar statements were also made from businessmen’s associations in Mardin and Şırnak. But it is no surprise that the KCK is now suspending the withdrawal, according to Dicle University’s Vahap Coşkun, an assistant professor of law. “I think that despite the KCK’s announcement, the violence will not return. It is always serious when you have issues in the process, but it is more important that the process moves on. I think the most important factor will be the democratization package. If the package meets their demands, the process will move faster from that point onward. Of course the package will not meet all the demands, but it is very important for the continuation of the process.”

A delegation from the BDP is expected to visit Öcalan soon on İmralı Island, where he has been imprisoned since his capture in 1997. Some commentators are optimistic that the visit will put the process back on track.  However, not everyone shares these hopes. The Nationalist Movement Party’s (MHP) leader, Devlet Bahçeli, harshly criticized the process at a press conference on Tuesday, reiterating his party’s long-held opposition. He claimed that the PKK was setting up roadblocks along highways in the southeast and collecting taxes from passing vehicles. “And the chief monster,” he said, referring to Öcalan, “has been promoted to guest from prisoner.”

He said the government was responsible for recent threats from the PKK, which will recommence attacks if the process continues. “I would like to ask the prime minister: Everything was going really well, what happened?” Bahçeli also predicted that the PKK will resume its violent attacks in the near future.