(Bloomberg) — Turkey said a Kurdish separatist group executed 13 hostages in Iraq, an account that could serve Ankara’s campaign to end U.S. support for Kurdish militants in neighboring Syria.

The hostages, who were held in in the mountains of northern Iraq for years, were shot by their PKK captors as Turkish troops were about to stage a rescue operation, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said early Sunday. The account couldn’t immediately be verified.

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The reported execution would mark the deadliest attack by the Kurdish separatist group in recent years. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will likely invoke it while pressing his years-long effort to end the U.S. arming of Kurdish fighters in Syria.

The Kurdish forces in Syria were the vanguard of the U.S.-led campaign to beat back Islamic State, and Washington says its support for them is tactical and temporary. Turkey says they are merely an extension of the PKK, which it’s been fighting for nearly four decades. It accuses Washington of endangering Turkish national security by providing sophisticated arms that are finding their way to the PKK, which is classified as a terrorist organization by both countries.

At the same time, Turkey has signaled that it’s prepared to resolve another dispute with the U.S., over Ankara’s purchase of Russian missiles, if Washington ends its support for the Kurdish militants in Syria. The U.S. has rebuffed the idea.

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Turkey began a cross-border operation in Iraq’s Gara region on Wednesday, airdropping hundreds of elite troops to clear the area used by the PKK to stage attacks on Turkish soil. It also said it had intelligence that the hostages were held in a specially built underground prison inside a cave there.

The Turkish army located the hideout but militants executed the captives before the rescue operation, Akar said, citing unidentified PKK defectors.

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