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By Mehmet Emin Caliskan
SILOPI, Turkey (Reuters) - A small group of Kurdish separatist guerrillas surrendered to the Turkish army after returning from Iraq on Monday in a gesture of rebel support for government plans to expand Kurdish rights.
Eight militants from a Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) camp in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq crossed a border gate near the town of Silopi in Turkey's southeast where thousands of supporters were awaiting them with PKK flags.
Two other groups of refugees and PKK supporters also surrendered to authorities. A total of 34 people were being questioned by Turkish authorities, witnesses said.
It was not yet clear if they would face criminal charges.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's Islamist-rooted AK Party has launched an initiative that is expected to give greater freedoms to the 12 million-strong Kurdish minority in Turkey's southeast.
The process is seen as vital to Turkey's European Union membership application as it introduces reforms to meet the bloc's human-rights criteria for membership.
The PKK had announced rebels would return to Turkey on the wishes of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to promote peace. The PKK, based in north Iraq, took up arms in 1984 to carve out an ethnic homeland in the predominantly Kurdish southeast.
DEMOCRATIC SOLUTION
It has since dropped its demand for independence. Some 40,00 people, mainly Kurds, have died in the conflict.
"It has become abundantly clear to both Turks and Kurds the that problems will not be resolved with violence and the solution requires political democracy," read a letter brought by the group returning from Iraq, broadcaster CNN Turk said.
About 3,000 people were spending the night in tents near the border to show support for the group of refugees and militants.
Four lawmakers from the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) and several lawyers accompanied the group during questioning, witnesses said.
DTP Chairman Ahmet Turk, said the move "shows that the PKK is insisting on peace not war."
The DTP, Turkey's only legal Kurdish party, has long been suspected of links to the PKK, branded a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and the EU. The DTP denies this, but risks a legal ban in a case before the Constitutional Court.
Erdogan and the army have ruled out a role for the PKK in the initiative, but have said PKK militants who surrender who have not been involved in attacks will be treated with leniency.
The DTP wants the government to grant the PKK an amnesty.
In central Istanbul, Turkey's biggest city and home to some 2 million Kurds, several thousand people marched in support of the government's plan, which faces resistance from nationalists.
"I'm here because I want the killing of children to stop. We need peace now," said Anka Turna, 48.
"I support the government's Kurdish initiative. This will be a long process. It is like cancer treatment. It will be painful and long, but a first step needs to be taken."
(Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley, writing by Ibon Villelabeitia; Editing by Jon Hemming)

Reuters