ISTANBUL, Turkey – Kurdish rebels released eight Turkish soldiers Sunday 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 had 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 rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party, known as the PKK, which is believed to have several mountain hideouts 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 its 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 rebels as attempts only to improve their 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. "Neither will anyone in the state institutions."
Even as news of the release spread, skirmishes between the two sides continued, with a village guard employed by the government and two Kurdish rebels 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.
"Now Bush will say, 'Don't attack Barzani, he made this release possible,"' Bagci said. "Turkey will have to negotiate with Barzani."
The Kurdish regional government in Iraq pressed the PKK to release the soldiers for humanitarian reasons, said Fuad Hussein, a spokesman the government.
Rebels said the release was an olive branch.
"I'm making a call to all national and international powers, mainly to the U.S., 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 U.S. 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 U.S. military personnel for transfer to Turkish authorities, according to the U.S. State Department.
The soldiers were seized in an Oct. 21 ambush inside Turkish territory that left 12 other soldiers dead.
"I am really happy, of course, I don't know what to say," said Fehmi Salman, minutes after talking with his soldier son Fuat Basoda by telephone from a Turkish air base in southeastern Diyarbakir province. "I'm happy that my son is free."
U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack applauded the efforts of the Iraqi government to win their release, and urged "continued, deepened, and immediate cooperation between Iraq and Turkey in combatting the PKK."