49 Turkish hostages held captive by ISIS in Iraq have been released in what Turkey’s president described as a secret rescue operation.
The hostages which included diplomatic staff, special forces soldiers and children – were taken from the Turkish consulate in Mosul in Iraq on June 11 after the city was taken over by ISIS fighters.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said they were released after a “pre-planned operation” involving the country’s intelligence services.
“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 release of the hostages came as a full-length propaganda film produced by IS emerged.
It was not immediately clear what Turkey had done to secure the return of the hostages, but independent broadcaster NTV said no ransom was paid and there were no clashes with insurgents during the operation.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: “I thank the Prime Minister and his colleagues for the pre-planned, carefully calculated and secretly conducted operation throughout the night.
“MIT (the Turkish intelligence agency) has followed the situation very sensitively and patiently since the beginning and, as a result, conducted a successful rescue operation.”
Police formed a cordon outside the airport in the southern Turkish city of Sanliurfa as the hostages arrived in buses with curtains drawn.
The Prime Minister, who cut short an official trip to Azerbaijan to travel to Sanliurfa, hugged the hostages before boarding a plane with them to the capital, Ankara.
Mr Davutoglu did not provide further details on the circumstances of the release, but said it was carried out through “MIT’s own methods”.
Hostages questioned by by journalists as they got off the plane said they could not go into detail as to the nature of their ordeal, but a couple of them hinted at ill treatment and death threats.
Alptekin Esirgun told the state-run Anadolou Agency that militants held a gun to Consul General Ozturk Yilmaz’s head and tried to force him to make a statement.
Mr Yilmaz thanked Turkish officials involved in his release but did not give details about their captivity or how they were freed.
He refused to take more questions, saying: “I haven’t seen my family for 102 days. All I want to do is to go home with them.”
Seizure of the hostages put Turkey in a difficult position as a summit of 30 countries met in Paris last week to co-ordinate a militray response to ISIS.
The international coalition led by the US agreed to “support the Iraqi government by any means necessary – including military assistance”.
Turkey resisted joining the coalition and the US was careful not to push Ankara too hard as it worked to free the hostages.
The hostage release comes as Turkey opened up its border to thousands of Kurds fleeing clashes with ISIS in neighbouring Syria.
Under tight security, the refugees, mostly women and children, crossed to the Turkish side of the border in the southeastern village of Dikmetas.