Kurdish rebels in Turkey have released eight hostages after their jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan called for a prisoner exchange.
The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) freed the eight soldiers and civil servants on Wednesday as part of a peace process with the Turkish government that it hopes will lead to a ceasefire by August. The hostages were freed in Iraq and they were back in Turkey on Wednesday afternoon.
According to reports, Ocalan began secret talks with Turkey to end the 29-year conflict in October.
Al Jazeera’s Omar Al Saleh, reporting from Antakya in Turkey, said the deal to release the hostages was considered a gesture of goodwill in a proposal made by Ocalan.
“Now this takes us to the more important step we could see by next week, this is according to Ocalan, we could see calling for the PKK to announce a ceasefire,” Al Saleh said.
The hostages met their families in Zakho, northern Iraq, and then entered Turkey from the border at Habur.
Al Saleh said Ocalan’s plan was for a ceasefire to begin in the next few months, up to the middle of August.
“Then the PKK will call on its fighters to leave the Turkish territory and withdraw and then lay down their weapons,” Al Saleh said.
Turkey has yet to announce what it has offered in return, but there has been speculation that it will make some changes to the Turkish constitution. These include recognition of the existence of the ethnic Kurds, which is one of the main demands by Kurds in Turkey.
The hostages have been named as Zihni Koc, Abdullah Sopceler, Kemal Ekinci, Nadir Ozgen, Kenan Erenoglu, Resat Cacan, Ramazan Basaran, Hadi Gizli.
The number of hostages held by the PKK has been disputed. Turkish media has reported numbers that vary from 10 to 20.
They were kidnapped on various dates in Diyarbakir, Van, Mus, Bingol and Sirnak provinces in eastern and southeastern Turkey.
The release was expected to take place on Tuesday but was delayed because of “technical reasons”, according to the BDP.
A spokesman for the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), Cemal Coskun, told the pro-Kurdish Firat news agency that the BDP-led delegation had travelled to the northern Iraqi city of Arbil for the expected release.
“We hope the powers longing for peace and democracy will see the gesture and speed up the steps for peace,” he told Firat.
Representatives from the interior ministry and two non-governmental groups were also in Arbil for the release, which both sides say should be interpreted as a confidence-building measure in new efforts to end the 29-year-old Kurdish insurgency.
The promised release follows a call the Kurdish leader Ocalan made from prison in Turkey last month.
He said that both sides held prisoners and he hoped to see them “reach their families”.
Besir Atalay, Turkey’s deputy prime minister, said the initiative should be regarded as a gesture of goodwill in the ongoing process. But he ruled out speculation that the government made secret concessions for the release.
“There is big public support, expectation and hope,” Atalay told the state-run Anatolia news agency.
Peace talks resumed late last year between Ocalan and the Turkish state with the ultimate aim of ending the nearly three decades of violence that has claimed around 45,000 lives since the PKK took up arms against Ankara in 1984.
Ocalan has been in prison for 14 years for treason. He is expected to call on his outlawed PKK to abide by a ceasefire due to start on March 21, the Kurdish New Year.