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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 November 2007, 02:15 GMT
Cold welcome for freed Turkish soldiers
By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Istanbul

The release of eight soldiers after two weeks held hostage by the PKK has not been celebrated in Turkey.

Turkish soldiers near border with Iraq - 28/10/2007
Turkey has massed soldiers on the border with Iraq
Some here have branded them cowards - even traitors.

Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin told an audience at Ankara University on Monday that he could not be entirely happy about the soldiers' release.

They were captured in an ambush by the PKK close to the Iraqi border on 21 October. Twelve other soldiers were killed in what was the worst clash of its kind with Kurdish separatists in many years.

"No member of the Turkish armed forces should have found themselves in such a situation," the minister began.

"As a Turkish citizen I cannot accept the fact that they went with the terrorists that night. Our soldier is prepared to die if necessary when he is protecting the country."

'Shame!'

The soldiers' families kept a very low profile while their sons were held hostage. The justice minister's statement prompted one mother to break her silence.

The military did not want this debated in public, because people had already started asking questions about how the hell it happened
Mehmet Ali Birand
Turkish columnist
"Why is our family honour being trampled upon just because my son was taken hostage?" demanded Aynur Atakul in one Turkish newspaper.

"I sent my son to his military service in a dignified manner. Would it have been better if he had died there?"

Many comments left on the webpage of Hurriyet, Turkey's most widely-read newspaper, suggest precisely that.

"Shame, shame, what shame! Eight weak soldiers. I wish they had stood and fought and become martyrs," reads one typical entry.

"What were they doing when their comrades were martyred beside them? If I were them I would be unable to look anyone in the face after this," says another.

There are only a few expressions of sympathy with the hostages.

Barely a mention

The October ambush itself sparked mass street protests across Turkey against the PKK, which is recognised as a terrorist organisation by the United States and the European Union.

PKK fighters
PKK fighters strike Turkey from bases in northern Iraq
When the coffins of the 12 soldiers were returned home, huge crowds turned out for their funerals. Newspapers and the airwaves were filled with calls for revenge strikes against PKK bases inside Northern Iraq.

But the eight missing men barely got a mention.

And when their release came, the official announcement - like that of their capture - was terse.

"During an armed clash with the PKK terror organization communication was cut with eight members of the Turkish Armed Forces," read a statement on the Chief of Staff's website.

"As of 4 November 2007 those eight soldiers have rejoined the Turkish Armed Forces," it read.

Unlike recent hostage crises involving Israeli and British military members, here in Turkey the government, military and media played this one very low-key.

One explanation is concern, in the current nationalistic climate, about the potential for clashes between Turks and Kurds in Turkish cities.

But some read more into the near-silence.

"The reflex of the mainstream press here is to turn a blind eye to anything they see as humiliating to national pride," explains Burak Bekdil, of the Turkish Daily News.

"The military did not want this debated in public, because people had already started asking questions about how the hell it happened," says respected columnist Mehmet Ali Birand.

"Something went dreadfully wrong for the soldiers to be taken by the PKK - and that reflects badly on the Turkish military," he says.

"The media played it down on purpose."

Voluntary surrender?

Four days after their release, the former hostages are still being questioned by military prosecutors. An already suspicious public is ready to believe the rumour that one of them has links to the PKK.

"Prosecutors will be focusing on whether or not the soldiers left with the PKK voluntarily," explains retired military judge Umit Kardas.

"If they did they could be charged with membership of a terrorist organisation."

"This has really shaken the military," he adds.

In a further blow to Turkish pride, pictures from the handover of the eight soldiers have now made their way into local newspapers.

They show three members of the Turkish parliament from the pro-Kurdish DTP party standing beside a poster of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned PKK founder. In others, the MPs are seen greeting the hostage-takers with handshakes and kisses.

Though the DTP insist they were present for humanitarian reasons, to aid the soldiers' release, they are now being investigated on suspicion of supporting a terrorist organisation.





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