Kurdish Rebels Free 8 Turks, Fueling Peace Talks

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ISTANBUL -- A group of Turkish soldiers and civil servants who had been kidnapped and held in the mountains of northern Iraq by Kurdish militants were released to their families at a border crossing Wednesday in the latest sign that peace talks between Turkey and Kurdish rebels were gaining momentum.

The eight captives were abducted in 2011 and 2012 by the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or P.K.K., which has waged a guerrilla war against the Turkish state for nearly 30 years, and their release was ordered by the jailed P.K.K. leader Abdullah Ocalan, who has been imprisoned since 1999 on an island near Istanbul.

Mr. Ocalan has been engaged in peace talks with Turkish officials since late last year in what analysts have described as a historic attempt to end a war that has claimed an estimated 40,000 lives. Over the last several months, the talks have captivated a Turkish public increasingly exasperated with the seemingly endless fighting with the P.K.K., which is designated as a terrorist group by the United States and European Union.

The peace effort has been seen by analysts and government officials as an essential step for Turkey to become a regional power broker amid the upheavals in countries like Syria and Egypt.

"This operation is proof that we don't want war," Baver Dersim, a P.K.K. official, told reporters at the border crossing, according to The Associated Press. Turkish television showed images of families embracing their relatives as they met at the border gate in southeastern Turkey, near the Iraqi border.

The hostage release was regarded as the first concrete signal that the talks were bearing fruit, and demonstrated that the P.K.K. militants hiding in the mountains of northern Iraq were willing to make concessions for peace. "It was all talk until the releases came today," said Umit Firat, a prominent Kurdish intellectual. "It was the first tangible result of the talks, and paves the way for more success."

"It also helped to clear the air of uncertainty and questions among the Kurdish population that wondered how the military wing of the P.K.K. regarded the peace process, and it appears to be supportive," Mr. Firat said.

Turkey's president, Abdullah Gul, speaking to reporters in Sweden, said, "If violence and guns stop, the transition from security politics to reform politics would be an easy one."

This is not the first time that Turkey has sought peace with its Kurdish minority, but this effort is regarded as the most aggressive and comprehensive attempt to end the fighting in many years. The Turkish public has largely welcomed the talks, in contrast to years past when such an overture would have led to a public uproar. For example, after officials met in secret with the P.K.K. in 2010 in Oslo, a leaked recording of a meeting prompted outrage among the public and scuttled the talks.

This time, though, the negotiations have persisted despite what many believe have been attempts to sabotage the peace effort. The talks continued after three Kurdish activists were murdered in Paris in January, and more recently after the Turkish news media received leaked minutes of a jailhouse meeting with Mr. Ocalan in which he promised to keep fighting if Kurds did not win constitutional rights. For decades, Kurds have been forced to suppress their identity and have sought greater rights, like the ability to teach in Kurdish in schools.

Even some politicians aligned with secularist and nationalist parties -- groups that in the past would have aggressively opposed talks with the P.K.K. -- are lining up behind the peace efforts. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People's Party, the main opposition bloc and the party founded by Turkey's secularist founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, said peace was the common demand of the Turkish society and should be delivered in a just and transparent process. "We all have to support peace together," he said.

The prisoner release was overseen by officials from Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region.

Sebnem Arsu reported from Istanbul, and Tim Arango from Baghdad. Ceylan Yeginsu contributed reporting from Istanbul.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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