BAGHDAD – Kurdish guerrillas based in northern Iraq on Sunday freed eight Turkish soldiers captured during a cross-border ambush last month.
The guerrillas from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, had been under international pressure to release the soldiers before President Bush’s scheduled meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan today in Washington.
Turkey has massed an estimated 100,000 troops on the border, and some observers had feared that the country would invade northern Iraq if the soldiers were not freed.
Turkish officials have faced intense domestic pressure to launch a military offensive to stop the PKK, which Turkey, the United States and other countries have designated a terrorist group.
A PKK spokesman, Abdul Rahman al-Chaderchi, said the group released the soldiers in Iraq about 7 a.m. in order “to stop deepening the war, violence and bloodshed, and also to make a step toward peace.”
The PKK, whose stated goal is to create an independent Kurdish state out of parts of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, sparked an international crisis when it ambushed the Turkish soldiers, killing 12 and capturing the eight released on Sunday.
The United States has been caught in the middle of the standoff, condemning the attacks on Turkey, one of the closest U.S. allies in the Muslim world, but also warning Turkey against attacks in Iraq, which could further destabilize an already violence-ridden country. The U.S. military continued to play the middleman Sunday, receiving the soldiers from Iraqi officials and then transferring them to Turkish custody, according to State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
“We applaud the efforts of the Government of Iraq to secure the release of the hostages,” McCormack said in a statement.
“We urge continued, deepened and immediate cooperation between Iraq and Turkey in combating the PKK, which is a common enemy of Turkey, Iraq and the United States.”
Violence continued to plague Iraq on Sunday, with at least 33 people killed or found dead across the country, according to an Interior Ministry official.
In Baghdad, gunmen killed an adviser to the finance minister as he left for work, the Interior Ministry official said.
In Tikrit, north of the capital, a car bomb exploded during afternoon rush hour, killing three people and wounding 18, police said.