The United States on Sunday freed 11 Turkish special forces arrested in Northern Iraq in a bid to defuse a spiraling diplomatic crisis with a key NATO ally. The soldiers were released in Baghdad where they were being interrogated over their alleged involvement in a plot to assassinate the ethnic Kurdish governor of the oil rich province of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, according to media reports.
A Turkish military helicopter was expected to fly the men early Monday from the Iraqi capital back to their headquarters in the Kurdish-controlled city of Sulaymaniyah, where they were detained on Friday, according to news reports. A U.S. embassy spokesman was unable to confirm that the men had been released.
The soldiers, including a colonel and two majors, were freed after a day of intensive diplomacy that included phone calls Sunday between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vice-President Dick Cheney.
Turkish officials said the men agreed to set up a joint committee to investigate events leading up to Friday's raid by some 100 U.S. troops of three separate offices housing Turkish special forces. Turkey has long had thousands of soldiers in parts of northern Iraq to fight autonomy-seeking Kurdish rebels. Turkey fears that increasing Kurdish power in the north could encourage Turkish rebels to revive fighting in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast. Turkish military and civilian leaders have denied claims that the special forces were plotting to harm Iraqi civilian officials in the north.
Relations between Ankara and Washington have remained shaky since the Turkish parliament in March rejected a bill that would have allowed thousands of U.S. troops to use Turkey as a springboard to enter Iraq. Anti-American sentiment has risen here in recent months. And on Sunday, police in the country's commercial capital of Istanbul used tear gas to disperse hundreds of rioters who shredded and set fire to American flags.
Some 2,000 Turkish troops remain in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq ever since the end of the 1991 Gulf war in order flush out Turkish Kurd rebels holed up in the rugged mountains separating Turkey from Iraq and also to deter the Iraqi Kurds from forming an independent state with control over oil-rich Kirkuk.