Jailed PKK leader Ocalan orders freedom for captives as timetable continues towards ceasefire and rebel withdrawal from Turkey.
PKK rebels free eight Turkish hostages held in Iraq
ANKARA // Kurdish rebels based in northern Iraq freed eight captured Turkish soldiers and officials yesterday as part of efforts between Turkey and the rebel group to end their decades-long conflict.
The rebels handed over six soldiers, a trainee administrator and a police officer to a group of pro-Kurdish politicians and human rights activists who travelled to northern Iraq, where the rebels maintain bases.
The group returned to 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, and three others were kidnapped in August.
Some were abducted by the rebels, who stopped cars in makeshift roadblocks in south-east 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 organisation 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 outlined his peace proposal in a letter delivered to rebel commanders in northern Iraq.
Under the plan, the rebels would declare a ceasefire this month and lay down arms and begin retreating from Turkey in the summer.
Meanwhile, Turkey would ensure that Kurdish rights are safeguarded in a new constitution and that local administrations are granted increased powers.
Turkish officials welcomed news of the hostages' 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," said the president, Abdullah Gul.
"If the violence and guns stop, then it will be easier to move from a security policy to one of reforms."
The hostages' release follows a call by Ocalan, which was relayed by Kurdish politicians who were allowed to visit him last month on his prison island off Istanbul.
"We are handing over these people in response to Mr Ocalan's call," Bawer Dersim, a rebel commander, said during the handover.
"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."
Video footage showed the freed soldiers and officials, all clean-shaven and wearing similar checked shirts and casual jackets, standing in a line.
Meanwhile, 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 travelled to northern Iraq.
Adil Kurt, one of the pro-Kurdish politicians in the delegation, said after returning to Turkey that the rebels were still holding "a number" of other civilians, including two government-paid village guards.
Mr Kurt said he asked that they be released too.