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Turkish soldiers freed by PKK

  • Story Highlights
  • Eight Turkish soldiers arrive home after being released, military tells CNN
  • Soldiers had been missing for two weeks after PKK ambush that killed 12 others
  • NEW U.S praises Iraqi government for helping secure release
  • NEW U.S. president to meet with Turkish PM in Washington Monday
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(CNN) -- The United States Sunday praised the Iraqi government for helping to secure the release of eight Turkish soldiers abducted by Kurdish rebels two weeks ago during a battle that heightened tensions along the Iraq-Turkey border.

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Young boys in Istanbul join a demonstration against the PKK Sunday.

The soldiers were handed over to Kurdistan regional government officials in northern Iraq on Sunday, before returning to the Turkish military base in Diyarbakir.

Fuad Hussein, chief of staff for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), said "all eight are healthy and in good condition."

"We applaud the efforts of the Government of Iraq to secure the release of the hostages," according to a statement released Sunday by U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

"We urge continued, deepened, and immediate cooperation between Iraq and Turkey in combating the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), which is a common enemy of Turkey, Iraq and the United States."

The soldiers' release comes a day before Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington.

The Turkish soldiers went missing on October 21 after their unit was ambushed by PKK rebels in southeastern Turkey. Twelve Turkish soldiers were killed in the ambush.

Hours later, Turkish forces struck back, killing 34 PKK rebels in the border region, according to Turkey's military.

Turkey's military initially denied reports by PKK rebels that they had captured eight soldiers, but days later the PKK provided pictures of the men through pro-Kurdish media.

The PKK has been launching attacks into southeastern Turkey from northern Iraq. The group is pushing for an autonomous Kurdish state in the region.

In response, Turkey is threatening to launch a full-scale military attack against the PKK, and has stationed 100,000 troops near the border. The United States fears that strikes by its NATO ally against the PKK could destabilize the U.S.-backed government in Baghdad and jeopardize supply lines for its 160,000-plus troops in Iraq.

The soldiers' release follows a diplomatic flurry of meetings between U.S., Iraqi, and Turkish leaders trying to defuse the border crisis that threatens to destabilize Iraqi Kurdistan -- a region that has avoided the sectarian disintegration that has spread across most of war-torn Iraq.

Most recently, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Saturday met with Turkish and Iraqi leaders on the sidelines of a meeting in Istanbul attended by Iraq's neighbors and other Arab countries.

She pressed Turkey not to launch attacks into PKK territory in northern Iraq during talks, while reiterating the United States' opposition to the Kurdish rebel group.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has pledged to work with Turkey and the Kurdish regional government to resolve the conflict.

On Saturday, the office of the Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party, a local political group, was shut down in the Kurdish region because of its ties with PKK rebels, the state-run al-Iraqiya television network reported.

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Al-Maliki said the Iraqi government has resolved "to close all the offices and the front business of the PKK all over the Iraqi territories" and also announced other measures to clamp down on the PKK, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Europe.

There will be tighter controls at borders and airports to check the group's movements, and greater efforts to isolate the PKK by cutting off aid to them. Suspected PKK members captured by the authorities will be tried in Iraqi courts on terrorist charges, al-Maliki said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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