ANKARA, Turkey — Dozens of Turkish diplomatic workers held hostage by the Islamic State in Iraq were freed Saturday, resolving a serious crisis that Turkish officials had long cited as a reason to avoid moving aggressively against the violent militant group.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of refugees fleeing an Islamic State offensive in northern Syria continue to cross the Turkish border.
The circumstances of the release of the 49 hostages, who were taken from the Turkish Consulate in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on June 11, were clouded in mystery. Turkish leaders gave only limited details of the release, and the hostages declined to answer all but the most general questions from journalists when they arrived at the Ankara airport about midday Saturday.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency reported that no ransom had been paid and “no conditions were accepted in return for their release,” but the organization cited no source for its reporting.
“I think it’s fair to say that we haven’t been told the full story,” said Aaron Stein, an associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute who has studied Turkey’s security policy.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the release was the result of the intelligence agency’s “own methods” and not a special forces operations, but he didn’t elaborate.
“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.
Families broke through security lines and rushed toward the plane to greet loved ones as they descended the stairs of Davutoglu’s plane, whose arrival at Ankara’s airport was broadcast live on Turkish television.
The joyous scene at the airport contrasts with the recent beheadings of two U.S. journalists and a British aid worker by the Islamic State.
Hostages quizzed by journalists as they emerged from the plane said they couldn’t go into detail about the nature of their ordeal, but a couple of them hinted at ill treatment and death threats.
Alptekin Esirgun told Anadolu that militants held a gun to Consul General Ozturk Yilmaz’s head and tried to force him to make a statement. Alparslan Yel said that the Islamic militants “treated us a little better because we are Muslims.”
Turkey had been reluctant to join a coalition to defeat the Islamic State group, citing the safety of its 49 kidnapped citizens, but Stein said he doubted Turkey would suddenly adopt a much more muscular attitude toward the organization.
Turkey might feel freer to advertise its existing efforts against the group, he said, citing its efforts to control oil smuggling across the border. But he said Turkey would not open its air bases to U.S. aircraft operating against the group.
“There will be some changes, but not as much as people hope,” Stein said.
So far, Turkey has played a mostly passive role in dealing with the Islamic State. But the push by the Islamic State to take over wide swaths of Syria and Iraq during the summer has put Turkey, a NATO member, into a more tenuous position.
And a recent Islamic State offensive against Kurdish villages in Syria has added to the already overwhelming tide of refugees that have crossed the Turkey-Syria border, further involving Turkey, if only on the humanitarian level.
More than 60,000 Syrian Kurds had crossed into Turkey since Friday, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said Saturday. “Some of our brothers are being placed with their relatives, some are being taken to local schools and state facilities, others are being hosted in tents,” Kurtulmus said.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Kurdish fighters from Turkey have reportedly crossed the border into Syria to combat the Islamic State forces barreling through the northern Kobani area.
— Associated Press