ISTANBUL Jailed Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan called on his fighters to leave Turkey without their weapons under a peace process to end a decades-old insurgency, the Yeni Safak daily reported on Thursday.
A weapons-free withdrawal by Ocalan's Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), as sought by the government, would be a significant step towards ending a conflict which has killed more than 40,000 people.
Yeni Safak, which is close to the government, said Ocalan gave the message on Wednesday to a delegation from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) which visited him in his prison on Imrali island, south of Istanbul.
Ocalan's call to the PKK, to be delivered to its leadership in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq, would amount to a concession in a dispute over pullout terms laid down by Ankara.
"The delegation returned with a call to 'withdraw without arms'. Once the message has been delivered to Qandil the withdrawal process is expected to begin on April 18," Yeni Safak said.
The report could not immediately be confirmed.
Ocalan asked for support for the peace process in a separate message to thousands of Kurds gathered at his birthplace in southeast Turkey to celebrate his birthday.
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 that began in 1984.
The group has demanded legal protection to prevent military attacks on its fighters during their planned departure to their northern Iraqi bases, a condition rejected by the government.
Hundreds of PKK militants 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 he opposes legislation, instead saying the rebels should disarm before heading for Iraq to remove the risk of firefights with Turkish forces.
Ocalan's supporters have gathered to celebrate his April 4 birthday in southeast Sanliurfa province, where he was born. In a message read out there on Wednesday evening, he appealed for their support for the process, saying he had fulfilled his role.
"I am calling on everyone who says 'I am honourable', whether rich, poor, male, female, young or old, to conform with and develop this (peace) process," he said in a message read out to the crowd in the district of Halfeti.
His supporters set off fireworks and chanted "long live the leader Apo (Ocalan)" as the message was read out, the Kurdish Firat news agency reported.
"I hope that not a drop of blood will be shed as this process develops. Nobody should harm another. Everyone should participate in this process with love," he said.
The PKK pullout is expected to begin in Tokat and Tunceli, the areas most distant from the Iraqi border where PKK fighters are located, Yeni Safak said. The withdrawal will be monitored by Turkish intelligence and the Kurdistan regional government.
Erdogan will meet on Thursday evening with the members of a new 63-strong "wise people commission", made up of academics, journalists and performing artists, established by the government to promote the process nationwide.
A deputy from Erdogan's ruling AK Party presented on Wednesday a proposal to form a parliamentary commission to assess the peace process.
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.
(Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Alistair Lyon)