Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters walk on the way to their new base in northern Iraq May 14, 2013. The first group of Kurdish militants to withdraw from Turkey under a peace process entered northern Iraq on Tuesday, and were greeted by comrades from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), in a symbolic step towards ending a three-decades-old insurgency. Image Credit: REUTERS

Baghdad: The Iraqi government said on Tuesday that it rejects the entry of Kurdish fighters from Turkey into its territory as a “flagrant violation” of its sovereignty that damages relations with Ankara.

“The Iraqi government confirms its rejection of the withdrawal and the presence of armed men of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK] inside Iraqi territory, which is a flagrant violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and independence,” a statement from the cabinet said.

The first group out of the roughly 2,000 PKK fighters who are departing Turkey as part of a peace drive aimed at ending the 29-year conflict with Ankara arrived in north Iraq on Tuesday.

The move “causes severe damage to neighbourly relations between the two countries and their common interests,” the statement said.

Iraq plans to present a complaint to the United Nations Security Council, so the body will “take the necessary decision to prevent the violation of Iraq’s sovereignty,” it added.

The first group of Kurdish fighters leaving Turkey as part of a peace drive with Ankara arrived in the Harur area of Iraqi Kurdistan early on Tuesday after a gruelling week-long journey.

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

The fighters, who arrived about 6am local time and were armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, light machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, were greeted with handshakes and hugs from PKK members based in Iraq.

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 jailed chief of the PKK.

“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.

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 per cent of the 75 million population, before disarming.

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 not pleased 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 Kurdish, not federal, security forces who man Iraq’s border with Turkey and ultimately decide who enters the region.