Kurdish rebels release 3 German climbers

July 20, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
Three Germans seized by Kurdish rebels during a climbing expedition on Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey more than a week ago were released Sunday in good condition, authorities said. The hostages were released at noon, the pro-Kurdish news agency Firat quoted the Kurdistan Workers' Party rebel command as saying. The three are in good condition and will be handed over to German authorities after a routine medical check, said Mehmet Cetin, governor of Agri province in eastern Turkey.

In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed the news, saying: "I am relieved."

"I want to thank everyone who played a role" in their release, she said.

The three men were kidnapped from Agri province on July 8, allegedly as a rebel protest against a German crackdown on supporters of the group known as the PKK.

The rebels have been fighting for self-rule in southeastern Turkey since 1984 in a campaign that has left tens of thousands of people dead. Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union consider the PKK a terrorist organization.

A PKK spokesman had said the group seized the climbers to force Germany to halt the crackdown on its supporters.

German authorities had refused to be blackmailed into negotiating the climbers' release.

On Sunday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan called his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to let him know the Germans were in Turkish custody, the Foreign Ministry said.

Officials refused to say where or when the climbers were released. In Berlin, Steinmeier confirmed the release but did not provide further details.

"Our thanks goes to the Turkish government and local security officials who from the beginning supported our efforts to work toward a solution," he said.

Local media reported that the climbers were being brought to the city of Agri from the border town of Dogubayazit, close to Mount Ararat.

Merkel declined to reveal any details, saying only: "It is a good thing. Many people worked hard for this in the past days and those efforts have paid off."

Cetin said the rebels were forced to free the hostages after being pursued by Turkish troops.

"They left them on a hill and fled," Cetin told a televised news conference. "Half an hour later, paramilitary forces picked them up."

However, the rebel command said the decision to release the Germans was solely taken by the rebels, Firat reported.

The PKK uses strongholds in northern Iraq to wage cross-border raids. Turkey has conducted frequent air raids on suspected rebel positions in northern Iraq and earlier this year also launched a weeklong ground offensive into Iraq to fight the rebels.

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Associated Press writers Frieder Reimold and Torsten Holtz in Berlin contributed to this report.

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