Kurdish rebels on Wednesday freed eight Turkish prisoners in response to a new peace push by Ankara to end a 29-year-old insurgency in southeast Turkey.
Speaking during an official visit to Sweden, Turkish President Abdullah Gul said it was “joyful” news that the eight were finally returning home from captivity in northern Iraq.
“If violence, weapons are abandoned, we can easily move on from security policies to reforms,” he was quoted by Anatolia news agency as telling reporters.
The release of the eight who had been held for around two years by the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) came after jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan said last month that he hoped to see prisoners “reach their families.”
“Responding to the call of our leader Abdullah Ocalan, today we handed over eight prisoners to a Turkish delegation,” Bawer Pirson, a senior PKK security leader, told a news conference near Al-Amadiyah, a northern Iraqi town about 30 kilometres (18 miles) from the Turkish border.
Turkish Interior Minister Muammer Guler welcomed the release as a “humane” act from the Kurdish rebel side, while he dubbed the kidnappings an “inhumane violation of freedoms”.
“It should never happen again,” he said in televised remarks.
The release was also observed by officials from Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region controlling the north, who are sympathetic to the Kurdish rebel cause while retaining strong economic ties with Ankara.
“Today the ball is in Turkey’s court, and they have to demonstrate their goodwill to develop a peace process,” said the PKK’s Pirson.
The freed prisoners were sent to Turkey in armoured vehicles through the Habur crossing point, where they met their families and were due to fly back to their hometowns later in the day, Anatolia news agency reported.
Turkish media said the eight were seven security officers and a civil servant and that the PKK held no other prisoners, citing unnamed rebel sources.
Ankara and the rebels agree the release should be interpreted as a sign of goodwill amid new peace hopes that could finally bring an end to the Kurdish insurgency.
Both sides in the conflict have set out conditions they say would signal good faith and commitment to long-lasting peace.
“The peace process will not develop in Turkey without releasing our leader Abdullah Ocalan,” Husamettin Zenderlioglu, a member of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) who was part of the delegation receiving the prisoners, told reporters.
“We hope that Turkey moves forward with this step and releases him,” he added.
Peace talks resumed late last year between Ocalan and the Turkish state with the aim of ending the nearly three decades of violence which has claimed around 45,000 lives since the PKK took up arms against Ankara in 1984.
Ocalan, in jail for 14 years for treason, is expected to call on his outlawed PKK, branded as a terrorist group by Turkey and much of the international community, to abide by a ceasefire starting March 21, the Kurdish New Year.
The Kurdish movement is asking for the release of hundreds, possibly thousands, of Kurdish activists and politicians kept in detention on charges of links to the PKK.
Ankara in return insists “terrorists” need to withdraw from Turkish territory before the peace process can effectively begin, and has promised not to attack rebels wishing to leave the country.
The Turkish parliament is also working on a legal package that will bring its often criticised anti-terrorism laws more in line with European standards and contribute to the peace process by paving the way for the release of many Kurds currently behind bars.
In 2009, an earlier government attempt at reconciliation fell through when more than 30 Kurds, rebels and civilians, entered Turkey from northern Iraq amid rebel celebrations, triggering a strong nationalist backlash.
The previous round of peace talks held in Oslo between the PKK and Turkey’s secret services collapsed in 2011 after the two sides failed to reach an agreement, escalating the violence.