SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) – ISTANBUL — Forty-nine Turkish hostages who had been held for months in Iraq by Islamic State militants were returned to Turkey on Saturday after what Turkey said was a covert operation led by its intelligence agency.
The hostages, including diplomats and their families, had been seized in June from the Turkish consulate in the Iraqi city of Mosul.
“The Turkish intelligence agency has followed the situation very sensitively and patiently since the beginning and, as a result, conducted a successful rescue operation,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a statement Saturday.
The details of the hostages’ release were unclear. The semiofficial Turkish news agency Anadolu reported that Turkey had not paid ransom or engaged in a military operation, but said it had used drones to track the hostages, who had been moved to different locations at least eight times during their 101 days in captivity.
The agency said that Turkish intelligence teams had tried five times to rescue the hostages, but that each attempt had been thwarted by clashes in the area where they were being held.
One senior American official, who asked not to be named, said Saturday that Turkey had not notified the United States before securing the return of the hostages, or made a specific request for American military help in connection with their release.
“I am sharing joyful news, which as a nation we have been waiting for,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in Baku, Azerbaijan, where he was on an official visit.
“After intense efforts that lasted days and weeks, in the early hours, our citizens were handed over to us and we brought them back to our country,” he said.
The prime minister left Baku for the Turkish province of Urfa, where the freed hostages, who included Consul General Ozturk Yilmaz, other diplomats, children and consulate guards, had been brought from Raqqa, Syria. The de facto headquarters of the Islamic State militants.
One hostage, who was not identified publicly, told a Turkish reporter for CNN aboard the flight to Urfa, that the hostages had been moved eight times. “We had tough days, very bad days,” he said.
Another hostage, asked whether he and the others seized had been tortured, said, “Surely, we went through certain things.”
Mr. Yilmaz said he was proud of the strength that Turkey had shown during the ordeal and praised the efforts that led to their release. “We’ve been through many hardships, but for one’s country, all were not to complain about but to be proud of,” he said.
Mr. Yilmaz described Mosul as “the most dangerous place in the world, a place thousands of people get killed,” and “the hub of terror incidents.” He said it was “nowhere easy to wave a flag.”
The freed hostages were later flown to Ankara to be reunited with their families. They were advised not to immediately talk to the news media.
Turkey, a predominantly Sunni Muslim country and a NATO ally declined to sign a communiqué calling for a military campaign against the Islamic State, the militant group also known as ISIS or ISIL, citing the capture of its hostages. But it did agree to contribute to an international alliance against the group, which has been gaining ground across Turkey’s southern borders.
Ankara agreed to open its Incirlik air base in southern Adana Province for logistical and humanitarian support, and pledged to strengthen border security, especially in the south. Its goal there is to stop trafficking of foreign fighters that have long used Turkey’s porous borders to join the militant group’s front lines.
Turkey has a no-entry list of 6,000 potential jihadist suspects and last year deported 1,000 foreigners on the basis of suspected links to jihadist groups in the region, a government official said in a recent interview.
While Ankara will no doubt remain concerned about the Islamic State’s possible retaliation throughout Turkey if it contributes effectively to a military operation against it, analysts said, the hostages’ release still might be a game-changer.
“One of the main hurdles for Turkey’s strategy was the hostage crisis and, therefore, the release of the hostages will no doubt give Turkey more freedom with respect to its own strategy to resist the Islamic State,” said Mensur Akgun, director of the Global Political Trends Center in Istanbul. He added, “This doesn’t mean that Turkey will forget about its other reservations regarding national security when giving the green light to the demands from partners.”
Hundreds of people showed up at Esenboga Airport in Ankara, waving flags, to greet the freed hostages, television reports showed.
“We as a strong state brought our nationals back home, but how about millions of others that expect to return home?” Mr. Davutoglu said, addressing the cheerful crowd and underlining the growing refugee crisis along Turkey’s southern borders. More than one million Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey, including more than 200,000 at more than 20 camps built in several border towns.
On Friday, thousands of Iraqi Kurds, in fear for their lives, crossed into a Turkish border town, Sanliurfa, from Kobani, a Syrian village that Islamic State militants have surrounded.
Mr. Davutoglu on Saturday praised Turkish news outlets that abided by a media ban that the government imposed in June on the hostage situation, and officials refrained from making any statements except assurances about the well-being of the nationals.