Abdullah Ocalan (pictured on headband) is the leader of the PKK, he was captured and imprisoned by Turkey in 1999.

Story highlights

"This shows that there can be a democratic solution to the Kurdish issue," official says

News agency: The 8 were kidnapped in eastern Turkish provinces on different dates

Turkish government and PKK rebels are seeking peace amid a guerrilla war

Rebels aim to carve out a homeland in the Middle East for Kurds

Istanbul CNN  — 

Kurdish rebels handed over eight Turkish hostages to a Turkish delegation in northern Iraq on Wednesday, a lawmaker from the delegation told CNN.

“This is a very important step. … This shows that there can be a democratic solution to the Kurdish issue,” said Adil Kurt, a parliament member from Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party. Kurt spoke to CNN by telephone in northern Iraq, where he was traveling with the released hostages to the Turkish border.

“It is a show of goodwill that they were released without any preconditions.”

The group had kidnapped the eight in various eastern Turkish provinces on different dates, Turkey’s semiofficial Anadolu news agency reported.

Many observers and commentators in Turkey call the hostage release an important confidence-building step in a nascent peace process now under way between the Turkish government and rebels from the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, a Kurdish separatist group. For the past 30 years, the two sides have been engaged in a bloody guerrilla war that has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

“Yes, it’s a concrete step, but it’s a small step,” said Hugh Pope, senior Turkey analyst with the International Crisis Group, an organization that advises on conflict mediation.

“Although, I sincerely believe that both sides want a deal and all kinds of factors have come together to make this one of the best chances to resolve the dispute, I think both sides are very suspicious of the sincerity of the other in reaching a compromise.”

For months, discreet discussions have been taking place between the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK.

Ocalan is being held in a Turkish jail on an island in the Marmara Sea.

He launched the PKK’s war against the Turkish state in the early 1980s, as part of a campaign to carve out a homeland in the Middle East for Kurds.

The Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Turkey, making up roughly 20% of the population. They have also long been subjected to policies of persecution and were referred to for decades as “mountain Turks.”

During Erdogan’s decade as prime minister, however, Turkey has relaxed laws that prosecute the expression of Kurdish identity.