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Kurdish Rebels Free Eight Turkish Captives

A picture taken on March 13, 2013 shows Turkish prisoners as they were released in the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk, after being held for two years in northern Iraq by the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK).

A Kurdish rebel group has released eight Turkish citizens who had been held captive for almost two years. The move is part of ongoing peace efforts to end the decades long conflict between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

The handover occurred in neighboring northern Iraq where the captives, a mix of Turkish soldiers and civil servants, had been held.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul welcomed the release. "We are happy that our citizens who had been away from their country for so long, and from whom we had not received any news, are returning," he said.

The release of the captives is part of a government-led initiative to bring an end to the 29-year conflict with the PKK.

Speaking ahead of the captives' release, Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay described the PKK move as an important goodwill gesture and said peace efforts remain on track.

Government talks with Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is being held in a Turkish prison, began last year. Ocalan called for the release of the captives last month.

Further steps are anticipated in the coming week, with the PKK expected to announce a cease-fire ahead of celebrations marking the start of the Kurdish New Year on March 21. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also calling for a withdrawal of all PKK fighters from Turkish territory.

Since 1984, the PKK has fought for autonomy as well as greater cultural and political rights. The conflict has claimed more than 40,000 lives.

Much of the international community, including the European Union and the United States, has designated the PKK a terrorist organization. Speaking at a news conference about the release of the captives, a senior PKK figure said, "The ball is now in Turkey's court."