Islamic State extremists Saturday released 49 diplomatic hostages they’d been holding since June to the Turkish government, ending a major crisis that officials here said had blocked the powerful NATO ally from fully joining the U.S.-led battle against the Islamic State.
Turkish officials said the MIT national intelligence agency, which negotiated the hostages’ release of 46 Turks and three Iraqis, did not pay a ransom or agree to any to any other quid pro quo with the Islamic State insurgents, two Turkish news outlets reported.
The 49 were taken hostage at the Turkish mission in Mosul, Iraq, the day the city fell to the Islamic State. They were held in or near Mosul during their entire 101 days of captivity, Turkish officials told McClatchy, then driven into Syria Friday night, where they released early Saturday morning in Tal Abyad, a border town.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu broke off a trip to Azerbaijan and flew to Sanliurfa in southern Turkey to greet the hostages, who arrived at the airport in two buses with the window curtains drawn.
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The hostages, who included consul general Ozturk Yilmaz, other diplomats, their spouses, two infants, as well as special forces soldiers, appeared in remarkably good condition when they arrived at Sanliurfa airport _ the men in jackets and ties and the women in freshly pressed dresses. Most of the men had grown beards, but all were well-groomed.
It was an emotional moment as Davutoglul, a former university professor, hugged the freed hostages individually in a receiving line.
They then boarded Davutoglu’s official aircraft and flew to Ankara, where where they were reunited with their families.
The prime minister hugged and kissed the hostages as they arrived in Ankara as well.
“We have been thinking of them day and night for three months,” he told a crowd of hostage families and government personnel. ”They were in our imaginations. They never faded from our eyes. We always thought about them. We slept and woke up with them in our imagination.”
Little emerged on how the hostages were treated while in captivity except for one anecdote, portraying the consul general as heroically resisting demands by his captors that he record a statement that they had written.
Former hostage Alptekin Esirgun said militants held a gun at Yilmaz’s head but he refused to make the statement, saying he’d rather die.
“There were times we faced death, but we supported each other,” he said.
One of the three Iraqi hostages, Fatma Koksal, who’d worked as a cook at the mission, said the captors promised no harm when they seized the Consulate on June 11, and in fact “they didn’t treat us badly,” the newspaper Hurriyet reported. She said the last place the hostages were held before being taken to Syria Friday night was a house evacuated by a Christian family.
It wasn‘t clear how Turkey got all 49 out seemingly unscathed and averted the fate of two U.S. reporters and a British aid worker, all beheaded.
The official Anadolu news agency said the MIT analyzed the Islamic State’s other kidnappings in both Syria and Iraq as its staff developed their strategy. They deployed “local assets on the ground,” as well as unmanned reconnaissance drones and electronic eavesdropping equipment to monitor their movements.
Using the same approach, MIT in early July won the release of a group of Turkish truck drivers, who had also been seized in Mosul where they were making fuel deliveries, Anadolu said. The newspaper Hurriyet quoted government officials as saying the hostages had been held in the vicinity of Mosul since they were seized and that their location had switched seven times.
It said the MIT had had at least five opportunities to free them, but military clashes near Tel Abyad prevented it. But it was the Islamic State that brought the hostages to the border town and released them, according to this account. They boarded buses with curtains drawn across the windows and crossed to Akcakale on the Turkish side.
Those clashes, between the Islamic State and Syrian Kurds, which began early this week, resulted in the flight of some 60,000 Syrian Kurds into Turkey in just a few days, deputy prime minister Numan Kurtulmus said Saturday.
There was no fighting on Saturday but Islamic State fighters are now just 12 miles from the city of Kobani. Idris Nassan, the deputy foreign minister of the canton of the same name, told McClatchy Saturday. He said the Islamic State had gained control of at least 25 villages since Thursday, and that Kurdish fighters, equipped only with small arms, were unable to defend the region.
He said as many as 50,000 women, children and the elderly are now gathered in the Kurdish city of Kobani. If the Islamic extremists attack Kobani, they and others will join the flight to Turkey, he said.
The Islamic State now holds three other Syrian border towns, including Tel Abeyad, and it appears to want a fourth crossing to strengthen its claim to being a state.
The plight of the Syrian Kurds was a central theme when Davutoglu took the microphone at the welcoming ceremony in Ankara. Turkey had already taken in 1.5 million Syrians of every religion and background, and he welcomed the latest refugees.
“No matter who comes to us, to our Anatolian territories for refuge, we do not ask who you are, what is your religion, what is your sect or your ethnic background,” he said. “We say, ‘Come, these Anatolian territories are a motherly lap and a motherly heart.”
Davutoglu, a highly respected diplomat, not only showed himself an eloquent speaker Saturday but also seemed to have a better command of the facts than President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan issued a statement early in the day that suggested the MIT mission was actually a covert rescue operation.
Thanking Davutoglu for a “carefully planned, detailed and secret operation” he said the MIT intelligence agency had followed the matter with patience and dedication “and finally performed a successful rescue operation.”
But there was no combat, and the handover apparently was peaceful.
Davutoglu said only that the MIT liberated the hostages “through MIT’s own methods.”
Turkish officials have cited the hostages as one factor that prevented Turkey from signing a joint statement pledging to cooperate against the Islamic State. It was unclear whether the hostages’ release would alter that stance, however.
The Turkish government has not explained why the consulate was not immediately evacuated after the Islamic State captured Mosul, but one official told McClatchy the government had left the decision up to Consul General Yilmaz.