The rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) yesterday freed eight Turkish soldiers it had taken hostage as Ankara's prime minister left for Washington to seek concrete steps to crack down on the guerrillas.
The PKK handed over the soldiers to senior officials from Iraq's northern regional government at 7:30am, Abdurrahman Cadirci, the PKK's head of foreign relations, said.
"I personally handed them to Karim Sinjari, the internal affairs minister at the Kurdistan Regional Government and Othman Haji, the interior minister," Cadirci said.
He said the soldiers' release came after mediation from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Ahmed Turk, the head of the Party for Democratic Society, a political group based in Turkey.
The KRG also confirmed the release of the eight.
"After personal attempts by Kurdistan regional president Massud Barzani, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Kurdistan regional prime minister Nechirvan Barzani, the Turkish soldiers who were detained by the PKK were released this morning," the KRG said in a statement.
Later yesterday, Fuad Hussain, a top Iraqi Kurdish official, said the soldiers had been flown to Turkey and their arrival in southeast Turkey's Diyarbakir by a military plane was reported by the television channel CNN-Turk.
The aircraft landed at a military air base where the soldiers were able to speak with their families by telephone, the state said.
Ankara vowed to continue the fight with the PKK.
"We will continue to fight the battle which we have fought from the start with total determination ... on the military, political, diplomatic and economic fronts against the scourge of terrorism," Turkish deputy prime minister Cemil Cicek told the Anatolia news agency.
The Turkish troops were captured when the PKK ambushed their unit near the border with Iraq on Oct. 21.
The attack left 12 other soldiers dead, raising regional tensions as Turkey threatened to launch military strikes in Iraqi territory to flush the rebels from their bases in the Qandil mountains along the border.
On Saturday, Ankara warned it still retains the option of a military strike inside northern Iraq to attack PKK rebels who have been fighting since 1984 for self-rule in southeastern Turkey.
"All instruments remain on the table for Turkey," Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said.
To further step up the pressure on Washington, which has urged Ankara to hold back on a military strike, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan left on Saturday to meet US President George W. Bush.
"Our visit comes at a time when [Turkish-US] relations are undergoing a serious test," Erdogan told reporters at Istanbul airport.
"We have run out of patience with the terrorist attacks being staged from northern Iraq," he said, adding that he hoped his meeting with Bush today would produce "concrete measures."