Turkey frees 45 pending trial over Kurdish rebel ties

ISTANBUL (AFP) - A Turkish court has freed 45 people, including eight journalists, accused of ties to outlawed Kurdish rebels after more than two years of pre-trial custody, local media said Thursday.

They were arrested in late 2011 in a crackdown on the banned Kurdish Communities Union (KCK), accused of being the political wing of the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

An Istanbul court freed the suspects, under condition of travel bans, late Wednesday, ruling that they had spent more time in pre-trial detention than allowed under new rules, the Hurriyet newspaper said.

They are set to face trial in April, with the exception of the journalists who will be tried in May.

The court however denied requests to release 53 others, including 10 journalists, who are also accused of rebel links, citing the "existence of strong possible evidence".

Critics say the number of people arrested pending trial in the KCK case tops 3,500, while official figures from late 2011 say over 600 people had been arrested.

Ankara launched clandestine peace talks with the PKK in 2012. The rebels declared a ceasefire a year ago, after the conflict had claimed more than 40,000 lives over three decades.

But the process stalled in September after Kurdish rebels announced they were suspending their retreat into northern Iraq, accusing Ankara of failing to deliver on promised reforms.

On the anniversary of the unilateral ceasefire, the PKK's jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan called for a fresh push to revive the peace talks.

The release of Kurdish prisoners is among Kurd's key demands.

The ruling came ahead of Sunday's key local polls seen as a test of popularity for both the future of peace talks and of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is battling a damaging corruption scandal.

Erdogan's Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party will struggle to oust the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) from Diyarbakir, the political center of Kurds in the country's southeast.