Turkey hails Kurdish group 'surrender', thousands greet rebels

Turkey on Tuesday hailed the "surrender" of Kurdish rebels in support of plans to end a 25-year conflict as thousands greeted militants released after more than 24 hours of questioning.

Rebel commanders insisted that they were not giving up arms yet and would fight on to achieve their rights a day after a 34-strong "peace group" of militants and sympathizers came in from Iraq carrying a list of proposals to end the violence.

Prosecutors initially released 25 of the group -- most of them Turkish Kurdish refugees -- pending trial on charges of links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party PKK and asked a court to put five others under formal arrest on similar charges, Muharrem Erbey, a lawyer following the proceedings, said.

The judge, however, also released them pending trial, he told AFP, adding that the four children who came with the group were not questioned.

"Welcome peace ambassadors! Kurdistan is proud of you!" chanted thousands of Kurdish demonstrators waiting outside the border area as the group, including rebels dressed in combat fatigues, climbed aboard a bus to travel to Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast.

The rebels made V-signs for victory as people lined along the road applauded them.

Turkey's national security council which groups the country's main civilian and military leaders on Tuesday discussed ways for a peaceful settlement to the Kurdish conflict.

A statement issued after the meeting of nearly eight hours said Turkey would however pursue its crackdown on the PKK.

The government was set to present to parliament a number of measures that would appease the Kurdish community.

Interior Minister Besir Atalay welcomed the group's "return home" as a boost to Ankara's two-pronged plan to expand Kurdish freedoms and keep the PKK under military pressure.

"We expect, in a first step, the arrival of small groups of 100 to 150 people," Atalay was quoted by the Anatolia news agency as saying, calling on the rebels to disarm.

Atalay argued that northern Iraq, where the PKK has rear bases, was ceasing to be a safe haven for the militants through Turkish military operations and cooperation with Iraqi authorities, adding: "We expect 100 or 150 people to return in small groups."

But the PKK countered that its militants would not lay down arms and turn themselves in unless Turkey officially recognised its Kurdish community and granted them political rights.

A senior rebel commander said the group that crossed from Iraq were not rebels who had abandoned the struggle, but envoys sent to convey Kurdish demands for a solution.

"This group should not be arrested and they should be respected... If the Turkish state does not arrest them and does not prevent them from expressing themselves, they would help the solution of the problem," Cemil Bayik was quoted by the pro-Kurdish Firat news agency as saying.

Bayik also underlined that PKK militants would not give up their armed struggle as long as Ankara continues military operations against them and fails to take concrete steps to give Kurds political rights.

"How could they the rebels come down from the mountains if the mentality does not change in Turkey, if the Kurdish will and identity is not accepted and if Kurds are unable to organise and express themselves?" he asked.

The rebels had sent two groups of militants in 1999 on a similar peace initiative, but they were arrested and then jailed for belonging to the PKK.