Kurdish rebels free Turkish captives in northern Iraq

SARGALI, Iraq Wed Mar 13, 2013 8:20am EDT

Kurdish demonstrators hold flags with portraits of jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg February 16, 2012. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

Kurdish demonstrators hold flags with portraits of jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg February 16, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Vincent Kessler

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SARGALI, Iraq (Reuters) - Turkish Kurd militants freed a group of Turkish soldiers and officials they had held in the mountains of northern Iraq for more than a year on Wednesday, the first concrete step in efforts to end their 28-year-old insurgency.

The six soldiers, a police officer and a local official looked in good health and wore clean clothes as they were handed to a delegation of Turkish rights activists and pro-Kurdish politicians on the remote Sargali plain.

"Their health is very good and a medical team has examined them," Baver Dersim, a senior member of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group, told reporters invited to witness the handover and a small signing ceremony.

"This operation is proof that we don't want war."

The release is an initial confidence-building measure in what is shaping up to be the most comprehensive effort yet to end Turkey's three-decade war with the PKK, a conflict which has killed more than 40,000 people.

Turkish officials began talks last October with PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, imprisoned on an island near Istanbul for more than a decade and reviled by most Turks who hold him directly responsible for the bloodshed.

Talks with the group, designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and European Union, would have been unthinkable a few years ago, and the openness of the latest process has boosted hopes for peace.

"We need to end the fighting and live like brothers. The Turkish government must make a step towards peace," said Adil Kurt, a pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) member of parliament among the Turkish delegation.

Under a plan discussed by Ocalan and the Ankara government, the PKK would end hostilities and withdraw its fighters from Turkey as a prelude to disarmament in exchange for greater Kurdish rights, enshrined in the constitution.

A third delegation of pro-Kurdish politicians is scheduled to visit Ocalan on Imrali island in the Marmara Sea in the coming days to give him the responses of PKK leaders in northern Iraq and Europe to his proposed plan.

During that visit Ocalan is expected to make a call for a ceasefire to go into effect from the Kurdish New Year on March 21, and could also call for the withdrawal of PKK militants from Turkish territory.

The PKK took up arms against the state in 1984. Its initial separatist goals have since been moderated to demands for improved Kurdish rights and limited self-rule.

There has been a relative lull in guerrilla violence this year as a result of the peace process. But PKK fighters detonated a bomb under a military vehicle in southeast Turkey on March 4, wounding four soldiers in what the group said was retaliation for Turkish military attacks.

Turkish warplanes have also continued to bomb militant targets in the mountains of northern Iraq where thousands of rebels are based, drawing warnings from the PKK that they are jeopardizing the peace process.

(Writing by Daren Butler in Istanbul; Editing by Nick Tattersall)

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