ISTANBUL - Kurdish militants released eight Turkish soldiers yesterday on the eve of a meeting between the Turkish prime minister and President Bush that aims to avert a cross-border offensive against guerrilla bases in northern Iraq.
The soldiers' plight was featured daily in Turkish newspapers, and their release removed a key source of domestic pressure on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to send troops into neighboring Iraq. But Turkey was unlikely to ease demands for tough action against the militant Kurdistan Workers' Party, known as the PKK, which is believed to have several mountain hide-outs along the Iraq-Turkey border.
Turkey wants Washington to take specific measures to stop the group from using the ungoverned border region as a staging area for attacks in the PKK's decades-long war for political autonomy for Turkey's Kurdish minority.
The PKK has killed more than 40 Turks in cross-border raids in the past month.
Turkey has ruled out talks with the PKK, and has dismissed past overtures by the group as attempts only to improve its image or to undercut the Turkish military and political pressure.
"I cannot see any kind of link between the release of the soldiers and the eradication of PKK in northern Iraq" that Turkey is pressing for, said Yalim Eralp, a former Turkish diplomat. Even as news of the release spread, skirmishes between the two sides continued, with a village guard employed by the government and two Kurdish militants killed in the border town of Idil, state-run Anatolia news agency reported.
Still, release of the soldiers gives Bush leverage to push Erdogan to negotiate with Massoud Barzani, the president of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, said Huseyin Bagci, who teaches international relations at Ankara's Middle East Technical University.
The Kurdish regional government in Iraq pressed the PKK to release the soldiers for humanitarian reasons, said Fuad Hussein, a government spokesman.
PKK militants said the release was an olive branch.
"I'm making a call to all national and international powers, mainly to the US, based on these principles: They should support a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question, instead of a violent and armed one," northern Iraq-based PKK commander Murat Karayilan told the pro-Kurdish Firat news agency.
"We released these soldiers to make clear that we want to solve the Kurdish problem with peaceful means and methods."
At a weekend conference in Istanbul, the United States and Iraq urged Erdogan not to resort to a cross-border incursion, which could destabilize a relatively calm area of Iraq. At the same time, the United States has emphasized that it has classified the PKK as a terrorist organization and assured Turkey they are a "common enemy."
The eight Turkish soldiers were handed over to Iraqi officials, who then delivered them to US military personnel for transfer to Turkish authorities, according to the US State Department.