IRBIL, Iraq, (AP) – Kurdish rebels on Sunday released eight Turkish soldiers in northern Iraq two weeks after capturing them in an ambush inside Turkey, Kurdish government and insurgent leaders said.
The release came before Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets President Bush on Monday in Washington to agree on measures against the rebels, and avert a cross-border offensive against the Kurdish rebel group.
A spokesman for the group that captured the soldiers, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, told The Associated Press by telephone that the eight were released Sunday morning near the border between Turkey and the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq’s north.
“The eight were freed this morning at 7:30 and handed over to Iraqi Kurdish officials in the mountains,” said Abdul-Rahman Chadarchi, a PKK spokesman.
The soldiers were taken in an Oct. 21 ambush inside Turkish territory. The ambush also left 12 soldiers dead and raised pressure on Turkey’s government to stage a cross-border offensive to fight Kurdish rebels based in northern Iraq.
The release of the soldiers, however, was not expected to affect Turkish plans. Turkey’s military and civilian leadership have repeatedly stressed their determination to stage an incursion if the U.S. or Iraq do not crack down on rebel hideouts in northern Iraq.
An official with the Kurdistan Democratic Party, who spoke on condition he not be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media, told the AP the eight soldiers were turned over to the Turkish military at the Pamarni Air Base near the Iraqi city of Amadiyah.
The base is one of five the Turkish military has maintained in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region since the 1990s. It is about six miles south of the Iraqi-Turkish border.
The Turkish military, in a terse statement on its Web site, confirmed that the soldiers had been handed over to Turkish forces, although the statement did not say where.
“The eight personnel have rejoined the Turkish Armed Forces as of Nov. 4, 2007,” the Turkish army statement said. Turkish television reported that the soldiers had been flown to Istanbul by early afternoon.
A spokesman for the Kurdish regional government, Fuad Hussein, told reporters Sunday the soldiers departed for Turkey before noon.
Hussein said Kurdish officials had pressed the PKK to release the soldiers, and described the move as a “humanitarian issue.”
“From the start, the leadership of Kurdistan tried to free the soldiers not because of any pressure or request by others, but because of faith that this operation must come to an end with the soldiers returning back safely to their homes and country,” he told reporters in Irbil.
Irbil, the northern Iraqi city that serves as the capital of the local Kurdish administration, is about 220 miles north of Baghdad.
Hussein said the soldiers were released to a delegation of Kurdish and Turkish officials headed by Kurdish Interior Ministry officials, Othman Haji Mahmoud and Karim Sinjari.
Another Iraqi Kurdish official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter, said the delegation also included an unidentified female Turkish lawmaker.
The Turkish soldiers “are in good health condition, happy and were humanely treated,” the official told the AP in a phone interview.
The ambush outraged an already frustrated Turkish public.
Demonstrations erupted across the country and opposition leaders called for an immediate strike against rebel bases in Iraq, despite appeals for restraint from Iraq, the U.S. and European leaders.
The soldiers’ release came after a weekend summit in Istanbul, where Turkish and American diplomats urged Iraqi officials to rein in Kurdish rebels.
On Sunday, Hussein echoed statements by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who said in Istanbul that his country “should not be a base for attacks against neighbors” and that the Iraqi government would take measures to prevent supplies from reaching PKK rebels.
“We cannot allow any one to take advantage of the freedom in Kurdistan to build military or political bases there, or to attack neighboring countries,” Hussein told reporters. “We are keen on establishing good relations with neighboring countries.”
The PKK is believed to have several mountain hideouts along the Iraq-Turkey border, and the U.S. is pressing hard to keep Turkey from launching a cross-border offensive against them. The U.S. has labeled the PKK as an international terrorist organization.
The ambush occurred four days after the Turkish Parliament authorized the government to deploy troops across the border in Iraq, following escalating fighting between the PKK and Turkish military.
Rebel assaults against Turkish positions during the last month have left 47 dead, including 35 soldiers, according to government and media reports.
Turkey is pressing Washington to promise to take specific measures against rebel group, accusing the rebels of using the rugged, ungoverned Iraqi border region as a staging area for attacks in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast. The attacks are part of the PKK’s decades-long war against Turkey, first for independence and more recently for political autonomy.
Nearly 40,000 people have died in the conflict since the rebels launched their first armed attack against a military unit in 1984.