Iraqi Kurds wary of PKK fighters coming from Turkey

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Iraqi Kurds living near the border are wary of thousands of Kurdish fighters leaving Turkey for northern Iraq, and hope the move does not lead to more Turkish air and artillery strikes.

For years, Turkey's military has targeted fighters from the Kurdistan Workers' Party in Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region, keeping farmers from their land and sometimes killing and wounding civilians.

The PKK, which has fought a 29-year nationalist campaign against Ankara, is now withdrawing its fighters into Iraq, where it already has bases, as part of a peace drive with Turkey.

While it is a positive sign for peace prospects, the movement of some 2,000 additional PKK fighters into Iraq has not put residents at ease.

"We hope not to hear the sounds of Turkish artillery and airplanes bombarding our mountains again," said Mohammed Saeed, 47, a resident of the town of Al-Amadia, near the border with Turkey.

"We are afraid that the fighting will start again," Saeed said.

A flare-up of violence would not be without precedent. Mass PKK withdrawals in 1999 were disrupted when Turkish forces ambushed departing rebels, killing around 500 people and wrecking hopes for a permanent peace.

The PKK has also claimed Turkey was boosting troop numbers near the border and warned against provocations that could hamper the process.

Saeed said that, due to the conflict, "we left large areas of our lands, areas that are still deserted."

"I wish they could reach permanent solutions with the Turkish government," Saeed said, but he does not believe that will happen any time soon.

Karwan Ahmed, 37, said that "all we want is for things to get better."

"I think the best thing is to reach permanent solutions with Turkey for the Kurdish issue there," Ahmed said.

"We hope that the Kurds in Turkey get their rights so that things would get better permanently, and the fighters would return to their people," he said.

The PKK fighters are leaving Turkey on foot, travelling through the rugged border zone to reach their safe havens in the Qandil mountains in northern Iraq, where they will join the thousands of fighters already there.

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

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

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

The group, which is blacklisted as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, took up arms in 1984. Since then, the conflict has killed around 45,000 people.

Iraq's federal government, which has made repeated complaints to Turkey about air and artillery strikes in its territory, is not pleased that more PKK fighters will enter the country.

The foreign ministry said 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 Kurdish, not federal, security forces who man Iraq's border with Turkey and ultimately decide who enters the region.

PKK spokesman Ahmed Denis called on the Iraqi federal and Kurdistan governments to support the movement of the fighters as part of the peace process.

"We say to the Iraqi and Kurdish governments that this process is not against them, and we ask them to play a bigger role and support it, because solving the Kurdish issue (means) stability for the region," Denis told AFP.

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