Kurd group seeks peace in Turkey

Kurd group seeks peace in Turkey

A small group of unarmed Kurdish rebels in combat dress crossed into Turkey from northern Iraq on Monday in a show of support for peace with the Turkish government, AP reported.

Thirty-four Kurds walked across the Iraqi-Turkish Habur border gate, where they were immediately detained by paramilitary police and moved to the headquarters of a nearby military battalion for questioning by four prosecutors, the state-run Anatolia news agency reported.

The group included eight rebels and the rest were noncombatants, including women and children. Kurds in northern Iraq celebrated with music and beat drums as the group left from a refugee camp in a convoy, Turkey's Anatolia news agency reported.

Turkish television showed thousands of Kurds gathered near the border to greet the group, waving Kurdish flags, singing, dancing and holding up banners calling for peace. Riot police stood guard, while a helicopter circled overhead.

The rebel group - the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK - said its imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan had given instructions for "peace groups" to travel to Turkey to promote reconciliation. The Turkish government has been working on an initiative to end the conflict with the PKK's thousands of rebels.

"We hope this will be the beginning of solving the Kurdish case through dialogue and away from the gun barrels," Bozan Taken, a PKK leader, told The Associated Press by telephone. "We want to show the world that we are with peace and we want peace. The Turkish side has to do the same and to find a radical solution to the Kurdish case."

The rebels have been fighting since 1984 for autonomy for Turkey's Kurds, who makes up a fifth of the country's 70 million population and live predominantly in the impoverished southeast. Tens of thousands have died in the conflict.

The PKK have said, however, that Turkish nationalists and other opposition parties are blocking the government's peace initiative, and that they hope to encourage the government to continue the process.

Ocalan, who is serving a life sentence on a prison island off Istanbul, leads his group through messages reportedly delivered to fighters by his lawyers.

The rebels traveling to Turkey were selected among fighters who have not been charged with attacking Turkish forces, and were expected to benefit from a law pardoning rebels not involved in violence.

Five of the rebels had been previously charged with making rebel propaganda or with membership in a terrorist organization, but none were wanted for any violent attacks, Anatolia reported.

The pro-Kurdish news agency, Firat News, published a photograph of the rebels dressed in guerrilla outfits composed of khaki baggy pants, cummerbunds and combat vests, walking along a road in northern Iraq. The group included several women.

Dozens of lawyers had arrived at the border to assist the group during their questioning, Kurdish lawmaker Sabahat Tuncel told the AP.

A second group of rebels - mainly Kurds in exile in Europe - was also expected to arrive in Turkey at a later date, Turkish news reports said.

Many PKK guerrillas shelter in the mountains of neighboring Iraq, crossing the border for hit-and-run assaults. The group is considered a terrorist organization by both the European Union and United States.

Turkey's government has yet to reveal details of its peace initiative, but in recent years has provided more economic help and cultural rights to Kurds, including lifting a ban on the Kurdish language in 1991.

At the same time, however, it has accelerated its military campaign against the rebels. Last year, Turkey staged a ground offensive against suspected rebel targets in northern Iraq, and has launched cross-border aerial attacks with the help of U.S. intelligence. Parliament this month extended the military's mandate to strike rebels in Iraq.

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