By Alexandra Hudson and Gareth Jones
BERLIN (Reuters) - A top Kurdish politician said on Monday it would be difficult for Kurdish fighters to disarm before leaving Turkey under a peace process, stressing that the key issue was that they depart peacefully without contact with the Turkish military.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government is seeking a weapons-free pullout by militants of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as part of a drive to end a three-decades long conflict which has killed more than 40,000 people.
The militants themselves however have expressed concern that they could be vulnerable to attack. Hundreds were killed in clashes with security forces in a previous withdrawal in 1999.
"Prime Minister Erdogan says disarmament must occur but even he knows that is technically impossible. He says, 'Leave the weapons in a cave or bury them, do whatever you want,' but who will regulate this?," Selahattin Demirtas, co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), told Reuters in an interview during a visit to Berlin.
"So we shouldn't get too hung up on this issue, and it appears that the government won't turn this into a crisis."
So far, the issue of disarmament has been the sticking point in the peace process. The PKK has said its forces will not withdraw as Erdogan has demanded.
The rebels declared a ceasefire with Turkey last month, in response to an order from their jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan, after months of talks with Ankara. The next step is a pullout of an estimated 2,000-2,500 fighters from Turkish territory to bases in the mountains of northern Iraq.
Demirtas said hopes for the peace process remained strong despite some hitches. He has been part of a BDP delegation visiting Ocalan, imprisoned on an island near Istanbul.
Only Ocalan and a few Turkish officials have direct knowledge of the peace plan, communicating through letters.
Demirtas said two BDP lawmakers had collected a new letter from Ocalan on Sunday, which was now with the Turkish Justice Ministry. That letter, which includes the details of the withdrawal, would also go to PKK leaders in northern Iraq, who would then write an answer to Ocalan and the Ankara government.
Ocalan could then make an announcement in the next week to 10 days, he said.
"If this begins in 10 days, then I think that by autumn we will see most of the withdrawal complete," he added.
Questions of disarmament and reintegration of combatants have tested peace efforts from Northern Ireland to South Africa, often proving extremely difficult to solve due to the amount of distrust on both sides.
Foreign mediators could be brought in to oversee disarmament and reintegration, as happened in Northern Ireland in the run-up to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which ended three decades of violence that cost 3,600 lives.
OCALAN "IN GOOD HEALTH"
Demirtas, 40, said he had found Ocalan to be in good health, energetic and keen to move forward with the peace plan.
The PKK, branded 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 modified its goal to political autonomy.
Pro-Kurdish politicians are focused on expanding minority rights and winning stronger local government for the Kurds, who make up about 20 percent of Turkey's 75 million people.
The war has drained state coffers, stunted development of the southeast and scarred Turkey's human rights record.
Demirtas said the peace plan comprised three stages, first a withdrawal, then legislative changes and a third stage that would include political talks and "normalization".
"The second phase is critical for the settlement. During that time the government must take certain steps for democracy in Turkey and the rights of Kurds. In particular the legal articles in the constitution which deny the Kurds' (existence) must change," he said.
The government has pledged to draw up a new constitution to replace a charter drawn up 30 years ago under military rule. But a parliamentary commission working on the draft has been unable to agree on many of the key issues, delaying the process by months. The BDP's support could break the deadlock.
Asked about the constitution, Demirtas said the BDP had four key demands. It must not define all citizens as "Turks" as at present, it must grant citizens the right to education in their mother tongue, recognize Turkey's diversity and include a right to some form of communal self-administration.
Demirtas urged Ankara to expand democratic rights and freedom of expression and to boost financial support for opposition parties. He also urged the government to limit the scope of anti-terror laws, often used to incarcerate Kurdish politicians and close down Kurdish political parties.
"Police and authorities' treatment of demonstrators needs to be overhauled ... We need measures to free the politicians and mayors who are incarcerated and political prisoners," he said.
Thousands of Kurdish activists, including dozens of elected officials, are held in prison on charges of backing the PKK.
The BDP hopes once regional tensions ease, the southeast can finally enjoy the economic boom seen elsewhere in Turkey.
(Additional reporting by Istanbul, Ankara bureaux; Writing by Alexandra Hudson; Editing by Jon Hemming)