DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Reuters) -- A small group of Kurdish separatist guerrillas surrendered to the Turkish army after crossing from Iraq, in a gesture of rebel support for government plans to expand Kurdish rights.
Eight militants from a Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) camp in the Kandil Mountains in northern Iraq crossed a border gate near 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, witnesses said.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government has been working on 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.
The PKK had announced that groups of rebels would return to Turkey on the wishes of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to promote peace.
Turkey has been fighting the PKK since 1984, when it took up arms to carve out a homeland in southeastern Turkey. The conflict has killed more than 40,00 people.
Ahmet Turk, chairman of the Democratic Society Party (DTP), Turkey's only legal Kurdish party, said the move "shows that the PKK is insisting on peace not war."
The DTP has long been suspected of links to the PKK, branded a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union. The DTP denies this, but has resisted calls to condemn PKK violence.
Erdogan and the army have ruled out any role for the PKK in the government initiative, but have said the state will be generous with PKK militants who surrender if they are found not to have been involved in attacks.
The DTP wants the government to grant the PKK an amnesty, but the government and military strongly oppose this.
In Istanbul, several thousand pro-Kurdish protesters took to the streets to back the government's plan, which faces resistance from Turkish 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."
Erdogan's Islamist-rooted AK party, which came to power in 2002, has already taken some steps to expand Kurdish rights.
Ocalan was imprisoned in 1999. He continues to lead the PKK from his cell on an island off Istanbul, but has focused lately on improved Kurdish rights as a means to end the conflict.