First Kurdish fighters from Turkey arrive in Iraq

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The first group of Kurdish fighters leaving Turkey as part of a peace drive with Ankara arrived to handshakes and embraces in Iraqi Kurdistan early Tuesday after a gruelling week-long journey.

"We are the first group to reach the safe area in Iraq," said Jagar, leader of the group of Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighters that comprised nine men and six women.

The fighters, who arrived in the Harur area at about 6:00 am (0300 GMT), were armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, light machineguns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

They were greeted by PKK members based in Iraq, who embraced them and shook their hands.

After the welcome, the apparently-exhausted fighters put down their weapons and warmed themselves at a fire.

"Our withdrawal came according to orders from the leader (Abdullah) Ocalan, as we want to open a way for peace through this withdrawal," Jagar said, referring to the PKK chief jailed in Turkey.

"We faced many difficulties because of rain and snow" during seven days on the road, he said, adding that they were observed by Turkish aircraft.

"We were getting ready to start a big fight with Turkey, but we responded to the call of our leader Ocalan and withdrew," said Midiya Afreen, one of the group.

"This is a new phase," she said. "This is the phase of peace."

The PKK has fought a 29-year nationalist campaign against Ankara in which some 45,000 people have died, but is now withdrawing its fighters from Turkey as part of a push for peace with the Turkish authorities.

The roughly 2,000 fighters in Turkey are leaving on foot, travelling through the rugged border zone to reach safe havens in Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region, where they will join the thousands of fighters already present.

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly vowed that retreating rebels "will not be touched," and said that "laying down weapons" should be the top priority for the PKK.

The PKK, however, is demanding wider constitutional rights for Turkey's Kurds, who make up around 20 percent of the 75 million population, before disarming.

"We will continue in organising and training, and we are waiting for the Turkish government to take the necessary steps for peace," said Rohat, an Iraq-based PKK commander who was in Harur on Tuesday.

These steps include "making amendments to the Turkish constitution and recognising the nationalist rights of the Kurdish people," he said.

Over the years, the group's demands have evolved from outright independence to autonomy as well as cultural and language rights.

A permanent peace could transform Turkey's impoverished Kurdish-majority southeast, where investment has remained scarce and infrastructure insufficient due to the threat of clashes.

Turkey is believed to be home to the largest single community of ethnic Kurds, who are scattered across Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.

Iraq's federal government, which has made repeated complaints to Turkey about air and artillery strikes targeting the PKK in its territory, is unhappy that more of the group's fighters will enter the country.

The foreign ministry said in a statement last week that while the Iraqi government welcomes any settlement that ends the PKK-Turkey conflict, it "does not accept the entry of armed groups into its territory."

But it is Iraqi Kurdish, not federal, security forces who man Iraq's border with Turkey and ultimately decide who enters the region.

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