AFP - Tens of thousands of cheering Kurds greeted Wednesday a group of rebels who "surrendered" in a good-will gesture to Turkey as the government came under fire for treating "terrorists" leniently.
Amid a display of fireworks, about people greeted the group in Diyarbakir, the largest city of the Kurdish-majority southeast, a day after the authorities let them walk free following their arrival from mountainous bases in northern Iraq.
Brandishing flags of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and posters of its jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan, the crowd chanted "Long live peace" as songs praising the -year insurgency against Ankara blared from loudspeakers.
"Fighters of the free people, welcome to your capital," one banner read.
The eight PKK militants crossed from Iraq to Turkey Monday, turning themselves in to the authorities in a show of support for government plans to broaden Kurdish freedoms and end hostilities.
Judicial officials at the border questioned and released them Tuesday pending trial, in an unusually lenient gesture for a country where many end up in jail for simply expressing sympathy for the PKK, considered a terrorist group by Ankara.
After spending the night in a nearby city they travelled to Diyarbakir Wednesday in a convoy of dozens of vehicles.
In contrast to the festive atmosphere among Kurds, their arrival sparked ire in Ankara.
The main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) charged that freeing the militants amounted to amnesty for the PKK, which took up arms in , sparking a conflict that has claimed some lives.
"This is a political, de facto amnesty carried out through the judiciary," deputy Isa Gok said.
An association of families of soldiers killed by the PKK lashed out at the government for arranging "a state ceremony to welcome the terrorists" and slammed Ankara's plans to improve Kurdish rights.
"The politicians who prepared the ground for this initiative are committing treason... The nation will hold them accountable for that," chairman Hamit Kose said.
The rebels were part of a -strong group, including also Kurdish refugees who had lived in Iraq for years, which Ocalan suggested be sent as "peace envoys" to Turkey.
Another such group is expected to come from Europe in the coming days.
Overriding the criticism, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed Wednesday the government would press ahead with its plans to expand Kurdish rights, but did not say what reforms it considered.
Speaking in the eastern city of Siirt, he welcomed the arrival of the rebels and voiced hope that "much more will come," Anatolia news agency reported.
However Erdogan slammed the welcome staged for the rebels by Kurdish activists at the border, calling it "an irresponsible provocation."
"We will press ahead with this process... and hopefully, we will complete it despite those incitements and provocations," he said.
Ankara categorically rejects dialogue with the PKK and has vowed that military operations against the group would continue.
But the PKK insisted Wednesday it should be part of any settlement.
"We did what was up to us," rebel commander Murat Karayilan told the Kurdish Firat news agency, referring to the arrival of the "peace envoys."
"We will now see what the government will do," he said. "First of all, (military) operations must stop and then a dialogue must begin."
Source: France 24