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U.S. releases Turkish troops

Protesters converged on the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul on Sunday to demand the release of the Turkish troops.
Protesters converged on the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul on Sunday to demand the release of the Turkish troops.

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ANKARA, Turkey (CNN) -- U.S. forces have released 11 Turkish special forces troops detained in northern Iraq last week, senior Turkish military sources told CNN Turk.

For security reasons, the Turkish forces were taken to a U.S. base in Baghdad, the sources said.

They expect to be taken Monday to the northern Iraqi city of Sulaimaniyah, where they were captured Friday, the sources said.

The release came after discussions over the weekend between U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul.

The Turks were detained by soldiers from the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade, who suspected they were involved in a plot to harm Iraqi civilian officials in the north, a State Department official told CNN.

The official, who did not want to be identified, said 24 people were detained, including the 11 Turkish soldiers. Others were detained but subsequently released.

All 24 were held in Baghdad, the official said.

Turkish officials had condemned the detentions, with one Turkish official saying they had caused "irreparable damage" to efforts to improve strained relations between Ankara and Washington.

CNN Turk reported that computers were destroyed and furniture was damaged in the raid's aftermath, and Turkish officials determined $116,000 was missing from a safe.

Erdogan said he asked Cheney to involve himself personally to ensure the quick release of the Turkish soldiers and to establish a joint committee to study what happened.

"Any other approach beyond these would be unfitting for two allies, and the negative impact of such to our relationship cannot be avoided," Erdogan said.

Turkey set up a liaison office in Sulaimaniyah after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Iraq's government in March. In addition, Turkish troops helped monitor a cease-fire between the then-feuding Kurdish factions.

Ankara fears that greater independence for Iraqi Kurds would spark a Kurdish separatist movement within Turkey's borders. Turkey had threatened to send large numbers of troops into the Kurdish-controlled north to prevent any Kurdish moves toward independence during the war.

One Turkish foreign ministry official, who did not want to be identified, described the detention as the worst incident with the United States in 50 years and told CNN the move had irreparably set back efforts to improve relations strained over the war in Iraq.

A spokesman for the opposition Republican People's Party said he had asked for an emergency cabinet meeting with President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, and said cabinet members should cancel all their trips.

A group of Nationalist People's Party members even attempted to march toward the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul in protest. They ended up being dispersed by police with pepper gas because they did not have permission to demonstrate, CNN Turk reported.

The Turkish foreign ministry issued a statement expressing "deep sorrow and regret" at the U.S. move.

Turkey's relations with the United States were strained early this year by the Turkish parliament's refusal to allow American ground forces to use Turkish soil to attack Iraq, forcing a change in U.S. military strategy.

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