ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Kurdish rebels based in northern Iraq freed eight captured Turkish soldiers and officials on Wednesday as part of peace efforts between Turkey and the rebel group aimed at ending a decades-long conflict, a legislator said.
The rebels handed over six soldiers, a trainee local administrator and a police officer to a group of pro-Kurdish legislators and human rights activists who traveled to northern Iraq, where the rebels maintain bases, Adil Kurt, one of the lawmakers, told The Associated Press by telephone.
The group crossed into Turkey through Habur, the main border crossing with Iraq, where they were to be reunited with their families.
Five of the captives had been held by the rebels for more than a year, while three others were kidnapped in August. Some were abducted by the rebels who stopped cars in makeshift roadblocks in southeast Turkey, carried out identity checks and took state officials or soldiers hostage.
The rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, has been fighting for self-rule in southeastern Turkey since 1984, often using bases in northern Iraq to stage hit-and-run attacks. The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people and the group is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
Turkey's government announced late last year that its intelligence agency was talking to the rebels' jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan with the aim of persuading the group to disarm.
Turkish officials have not disclosed details of the talks but Ocalan reportedly outlined his peace proposal in a letter delivered to rebel commanders in northern Iraq. News reports and officials said under the plan, the rebels would declare a cease-fire this month and lay down arms and begin retreating from Turkey in the summer.
Under the proposal, Turkey would ensure that Kurdish rights are safeguarded in a new constitution and that local administrations are granted increased powers, according to media reports.
Turkish officials welcomed news of their release but renewed a call for the group to end its armed campaign.
"We are happy that our citizens who had been away from their country for so long, and from whom we had not received any news, are returning," the state-run Anadolu Agency quoted President Abdullah Gul as saying during a visit to Sweden.
"If the violence and guns stop, then it will be easier (for Turkey) to move from a security policy to one of reforms," Gul said.
The officials' and soldiers' release follows a call by Ocalan, which was relayed by Kurdish legislators who were allowed to visit him last month on his prison island off Istanbul, as part of the peace process.
"We are handing over these people in response to Mr. Ocalan's call and instructions from (the Kurdish rebels)," Bawer Dersim, a rebel commander said during the handover, according to private Dogan news agency video footage. "We hope that the release will contribute to the process for a democratic solution."
"We are calling on the Turkish people ... to seize on this meaningful effort by our leader and to give support to the process for peace and democracy," Dersim said.
The video showed the freed soldiers and officials, all clean-shaven and wearing similar checkered shirts and casual jackets, standing in a line, while the delegation from Turkey and the rebels sat behind a table and signed and exchanged papers.
None of the captives were tortured or ill-treated, according to Ozturk Turkdogan, the head of the Ankara-based Human Rights Association, who was part of the delegation that traveled to northern Iraq.
Kurt, the legislator, told reporters after crossing into Turkey that the rebels were still holding "a number" of other civilians, including two government-paid village guards, and said he had asked that they be released too.