By Daren Butler
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey's peace process with Kurdish militants faces a hurdle as the rebels demand legal protection to prevent any military attack on them during their planned withdrawal after decades of fighting, a call rejected by the government.
The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) declared a ceasefire with Turkey last month in response to an order from its jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan after months of talks with Ankara to halt a conflict which has killed more than 40,000.
The next planned step is a withdrawal 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.
"The guerrillas cannot withdraw unless a legal foundation is prepared and measures are taken, because guerrillas suffered major attacks when they left in the past," PKK commander Cemil Bayik told Kurdish Nuce TV in an interview aired late on Monday.
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 would be no repeat of such clashes but is against legislation, instead saying the rebels should disarm before withdrawing to remove the risk of firefights with Turkish forces.
"We don't care where those withdrawing leave their weapons or even whether they bury them. They must put them down and go. Because otherwise this situation is very open to provocation," Erdogan said in a television interview late on Friday.
Milliyet newspaper reported security sources as saying about 700 of 1,500 PKK militants believed to be in Turkey may be allowed to reintegrate into society rather than withdrawing as they have not taken part in armed attacks.
The PKK has rejected a withdrawal without legal protection.
"A withdrawal as called for by Erdogan is not on our movement's agenda," PKK leaders in northern Iraq said at the weekend, calling for government action to advance the peace process.
"It is essential for the lasting and healthy development of the process that some concrete, practical steps are taken in order to convince our forces," the group said in a statement.
Erdogan has taken a considerable political risk in allowing negotiations with Ocalan, reviled by most Turks, to unfold publicly. The government has said little about what reforms it would make to persuade the PKK to disarm.
The PKK, designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and European Union, launched its insurgency in 1984 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 boosting minority rights and stronger local government for the Kurds, who make up about 20 percent of Turkey's population of 75 million people.
Erdogan said he would meet on Thursday members of a "wise people" commission who will prepare a report on the peace process for the government within one month. The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) is separately calling for a parliamentary commission to monitor the process.
Efforts to resolve the legal protection dispute are likely to top the agenda in planned talks between a BDP delegation and Ocalan in his jail on Imrali island, south of Istanbul. The visit is expected this weekend, a Justice Ministry official told Reuters.
The visit, which may bring an order from Ocalan for the withdrawal to begin, will follow celebrations by Ocalan's supporters to mark his birthday on April 4 at his birthplace in southeast Turkey.
(Additional reporting by Gulsen Solaker in Ankara; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Pravin Char)