Kurdish rebels release 8 captives on eve of U.S. talks

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq — On the eve of critical talks between President Bush and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Kurdish rebels on Sunday released eight Turkish soldiers that they'd captured nearly two weeks ago.

Guerrillas from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, known as the PKK, surrendered the eight men to local Iraqi Kurdish government officials at about 8 a.m., a PKK spokesman said. The soldiers were then taken to a U.S. military facility in Irbil, the regional Kurdish capital, where they were turned over to Turkish officials.

Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, witnessed the handover at Irbil. But no U.S. officials were present for the initial handover, which the PKK spokesman, Abdul Rahman al Chadarchi, said took place "in a location under the control of the Workers' party." He refused to name the location.

That ceremony was televised in Iraqi Kurdistan and showed PKK delegates meeting with Iraqi Kurdish officials and signing documents while seated at a table. A large photo of the PKK's jailed founder, Abdullah Ocalan, who was captured by Turkish forces in 1999, hung from the table's edge.

U.S. officials have been working feverishly in recent days to forestall Turkish threats to send troops into northern Iraq to root out PKK guerrillas, who've killed 30 Turkish soldiers in the past month. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spent two days in Turkey last week in a failed effort to dissuade the Turks from military action.

A Turkish incursion into northern Iraq would be a major embarrassment for the United States, which is responsible for Iraq's security, and would risk a wider conflict in the only part of the country that enjoys relative peace and economic development.

On Oct. 17, the Turkish parliament authorized its military to take action against the PKK inside Iraq. Four days later, PKK guerrillas attacked a Turkish patrol, killing 12 soldiers and capturing the eight — and stoking Turkish calls for a military response.

In the face of U.S. pressure, however, Erdogan promised not to order any response until after Monday's meeting with Bush.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack hailed the development and credited the Iraqi government.

"We applaud the efforts of the government of Iraq to secure the release of the hostages," McCormack said in a written statement.

In Turkey, the release of the soldiers received widespread attention, with news stations devoting nearly their entire broadcasts throughout the day to the development. Parents of the captured soldiers were interviewed, and one station ran long re-enactments of their kidnappings.

But there was no official reaction to the release from the Turkish government.

Details of how the release was arranged were vague. Turkey has accused the Kurdish regional government, which exercises autonomous control of Iraq's three northern provinces, of tolerating, if not abetting, the PKK. Sympathy is widespread in Iraqi Kurdistan for the PKK, despite recent government calls for an end to its activities.

Chadarchi, the PKK spokesman, said Iraqi President Jalal Talibani, himself a Kurd, had played a key role in the talks.

Chadarchi said neither Iraq's central government nor the Kurdish Regional Government had made promises in exchange for the soldiers' release.

In a statement made during the initial televised turnover ceremony, a PKK leader, Murad Qarilan, suggested, however, that the PKK is expecting some kind of quid pro quo.

"Releasing the prisoners is a positive step that must be returned with a corresponding step by Turkey," he said.

A U.S. military spokesman said American military officers had no contact with members of the PKK, which long has been included on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.

"Essentially, we just helped facilitate this. This was an Iraq-Turkey diplomatic venture," said Maj. Brad Leighton, a U.S. military spokesman. "Basically, we were just helping out our two allies."

Nechirvan Barzani, the prime minister of the Kurdish regional government, urged Turkey to show restraint.

"We hope that this tangible result will pave the way for greater cooperation on issues related to border security between our two countries and will help ease pressures for a military solution," he said.

Barzani called for the PKK to institute "an unconditional ceasefire, lay down its arms, and commit itself to the political process."

"We hope that this will encourage Turkey to find a peaceful solution to the issue," Barzani said.

(Calvan, of The Sacramento Bee, reported from Baghdad. McClatchy Special Correspondent Yaseen Taha reported from Sulaimaniyah. Matthew Schofield contributed to this report from Istanbul, Turkey.)