Kurdish rebels on today released eight Turkish soldiers in northern Iraq two weeks after capturing them in an ambush inside Turkey, a PKK spokesman said.
The release came before Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets President Bush on Monday in Washington to discuss a possible cross-border offensive against the Kurdish rebel group.
A spokesman for the group holding the soldiers, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, said the eight were released this morning near the border between Turkey and the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq’s north.
“The eight were freed this morning at 7.30am and handed over to Iraqi Kurdish officials in the mountains,” said Abdul-Rahman Chadarchi, a PKK spokesman.
An unnamed Iraqi Kurdish official said the soldiers are in Irbil, the northern Iraqi city that serves as the capital of the local Kurdish administration.
They were expected to hold a news conference at Irbil’s airport before departing for Turkey later, he said.
“They are in good health condition, happy and were humanely treated,” the official said.
The soldiers were released to a delegation of Kurdish and Turkish officials, headed by an official from the Kurdish Interior Ministry and a female Turkish lawmaker, he said.
The PKK is believed to have several mountain hideouts along the Iraq-Turkey border.
The soldiers were taken in an October 21 ambush inside Turkish territory. The ambush also left 12 soldiers dead and has been a key factor in the mounting 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 US or Iraq do not crack down on rebel hideouts in northern Iraq.
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 US and European leaders.
The US is pressing hard to keep Turkey from staging a cross-border offensive against the rebels.
The US designates the PKK as an international terrorist organisation.
The ambush occurred four days after the Turkish Parliament authorised the government to deploy troops across the border in Iraq, amid growing anger in Turkey at perceived US and Iraqi failure to live up to pledges to crack down on the PKK.
Turkey now says it wants to hear specifics about what Washington is prepared to do to counter the rebel group, or Turkey will launch an attack. Rebel attacks against Turkish positions during the last month have left 47 dead, including 35 soldiers, according to government and media reports.
Rebels periodically cross the border to stage attacks in their war for autonomy for Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish south-east. Nearly 40,000 people have died in the conflict since the rebels launched their first armed attack against a military unit in 1984.