A group of Kurdish rebels crossed the border from Northern Iraq and surrendered to the Turkish army on Monday, in a gesture intended to spur government efforts to extend the rights of Kurdish citizens.
Thousands of people gathered near the Habur gate on Turkey’s south east border to welcome the eight militants from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as they crossed with a larger group of refugees and PKK sympathisers. It is the first time PKK guerrillas have given themselves up since the 1990s.
Turkey’s government spent the summer consulting on reforms to broaden language and cultural rights for an estimated 12m Kurds, aiming to end a 25-year conflict that has claimed over 40,000 lives, deepened social and economic divides and hampered Turkey’s progress towards European Union membership.
But it has taken few concrete steps since, and Kurdish politicians are growing sceptical that ministers will risk a nationalist backlash by addressing their biggest grievances.
Ahmet Turk, leader of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party, said the group had left its shelter in Iraq’s Qandil mountains on the orders of the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, to show “his sincerity over peace in Turkey” and to hasten the reform initiative.
Serkan Akbas, a local lawyer helping in talks with security forces, said they were unlikely to be arrested. But he said they were still at the border on Monday evening arguing they should enter as “peace envoys” rather than surrendering under a “repentance law”.
The government has ruled out any part in the negotiations for Mr Ocalan, who has been serving a life sentence since 1999, and some Turks may dismiss the “peace envoys” as a publicity trick aimed at reasserting his authority over Kurdish politics.
Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkish foreign minister, when asked about the gesture simply called attention to bilateral security agreements signed with the Iraqi government last week and said, “Our fight against terror continues in every dimension”.
Both the government and military oppose granting any general amnesty for PKK fighters, but have hinted that existing laws will be interpreted generously for those who have not taken part in attacks.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, is likely to brief the national security council on his plans for reforms at a meeting in Ankara on Tuesday.