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By Mehmet Emin Caliskan
SILOPI, Turkey (Reuters) - Turkey on Tuesday freed a group of Kurdish rebels who had surrendered to the army after returning from Iraq, a move which could help efforts to end a 25-year old separatist conflict.
The militants from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) rebel group had given themselves up on Monday to support Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's reform process, which includes plans to grant more political and cultural rights to minority Kurds.
After being questioned by prosecutors, all 34 PKK members, sympathisers and refuges who crossed the border gate near Silopi in southeast Turkey were freed without charges to the cheers of several thousand jubilant supporters.
Interior Minister Besir Atalay said he expected more PKK rebels to return to Turkey.
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. It has said PKK militants who surrender and are not found to be involved in attacks will be treated with leniency.
The reforms are important to advancing Turkey's European Union membership application, responding to demands that Ankara meet the bloc's human rights criteria.
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.
It has since dropped its independence demand. Prospects of the current process leading to PKK disarmament are unclear with Ankara resisting Kurdish political calls for a rebel amnesty.
MORE EXPECTED TO RETURN
Atalay said the return of the Kurdish group was part of the wider reform plan and said more would follow.
"We expect the initial group which is coming to reach 100-150 people. We are advancing towards a solution with a good plan," he told reporters, according to broadcaster CNN Turk.
About 3,000 people spent the night in tents near the Iraqi 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 has said the move "shows that the PKK is insisting on peace not war."
The DTP, Turkey's only Kurdish party in parliament, 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.
(Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Angus MacSwan)