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Turkey Obtains Release of Hostages Held in Iraq – New York Times

Turkey Obtains Release of Hostages Held in Iraq – New York Times

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Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey, center, in suit, welcomed freed hostages Saturday as they arrived at Esenboga Airport in Ankara on Saturday. Credit European Pressphoto Agency

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ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey secured the release of 49 hostages who had been held for more than three months in Iraq by the jihadists of the Islamic State on Saturday, marking a moment of joy for Turkey while raising questions about how it had managed to set them free.

Turkey said its intelligence agency had led a covert operation to bring home the hostages, who included diplomats and their families, but insisted that no military actions had been taken and that no ransoms were paid.

But Turkish officials provided no information on why or how the captives were transported from Mosul in Iraq to Raqqa in Syria before being brought to the Turkish border. Nor did they explain how they extracted such a large group, which included women and children, from Raqqa, the de facto capital of the world’s strongest jihadist group, without facing significant resistance.

“Right now, the government is on top of things because they got the release of the hostages, and they should be congratulated for that, but a lot of people will be asking how this happened,” said Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul.

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An employee of the Turkish Consulate in Mosul was greeted by family members at Esenboga Airport in Ankara on Saturday. Credit Reuters

“I still don’t understand what ISIS got out of this,” he said, using an alternative name for the Islamic State.

The release of the hostages will most likely give a boost to the presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the former prime minister, and could affect Turkey’s participation in the international coalition that the United States is seeking to build to fight the Islamic State.

Turkey, a predominantly Sunni Muslim country and a NATO ally, declined to sign a communiqué calling for a military campaign against the Islamic State, saying that it feared repercussions for the hostages.

Some analysts said the end of the hostage crisis would give Turkey more strategic flexibility, although the fear of reactions could still keep it from getting involved militarily.

“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. “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.”

Turkey has agreed to contribute to an international alliance against the group, which has seized territory in Syria and Iraq for its self-declared caliphate near Turkey’s southern border.

Ankara also 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 the transport of foreign fighters who have long used Turkey’s porous borders to join the militant group’s front lines.

The hostages had been seized in June from the Turkish Consulate in Mosul, in northern Iraq, and included Consul General Ozturk Yilmaz, other diplomats, children and three Iraqis.

While the freed hostages were advised not to speak to the news media, some details about their ordeal emerged, suggesting a harrowing affair made worse by the raging conflicts on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border.

Mr. Yilmaz, the consul general, said that airstrikes aimed at the Islamic State in Iraq had killed two of the men guarding the hostages and that some in the group were wounded when the blast showered them with glass.

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A visual guide to the crisis in Iraq and Syria.

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In an interview with Turkey’s NTV television station, Mr. Yilmaz said the militants had put a gun to his head so they could take propaganda photos of him and the others, but he had refused to cooperate.

“We would prefer to be killed if anything bad happens to women, children and our flag,” he said.

He also said the captives had been moved eight times and were forced to watch propaganda videos, including that of the beheading of the American journalist James Foley, to weaken their morale.

The semiofficial Anadolu news agency said that Turkey had used drones to track the captives as they were moved. It said that Turkish intelligence teams had tried five times to rescue the hostages, but that each attempt had been thwarted by clashes near where they were held.

Another hostage, asked whether he and the others had been tortured, said, “Surely, we went through certain things.”

“The Turkish intelligence agency has followed the situation very sensitively and patiently since the beginning, and as a result, conducted a successful rescue operation,” Mr. Erdogan said in a statement.

One senior American official, who asked not to be identified, 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.

Turkey fears Islamic militants not just over its borders, but also inside of them. It has a no-entry list of 6,000 potential jihadist suspects, and last year it deported 1,000 foreigners on the basis of suspected links to jihadist groups, a government official said in a recent interview.

Though Ankara will no doubt remain concerned about the Islamic State’s possible retaliation throughout Turkey if it contributes to a military operation against it, analysts said, the hostages’ release still might change the situation.

After crossing the border from Syria, the freed hostages boarded a plane in the Turkish city of Urfa to Ankara to be reunited with their families. Hundreds of people showed up at Esenboga Airport in Ankara, waving flags, to greet them, television reports showed.

“We as a strong state brought our nationals back home, but how about millions of others that expect to return home?” Prime Minister Ahmet 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.

Adding to those numbers, more than 60,000 Kurdish refugees from the Kobani area of northern Syria have crossed into Turkey since Friday, Turkish officials said, fleeing an assault by Islamic State fighters. Several hundred Kurdish fighters crossed the border in the other direction on Saturday to help defend the area, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

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