Turkey says 49 hostages seized by ISIS have been freed
Hostages were consulate employees in Mosul, 46 Turks and 3 Iraqis
Turkish authorities say they have freed 49 hostages from the militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) without firing a shot, paying a ransom or offering a quid pro quo.
But as the well-dressed men and women held for more than three months ago clasped their families Saturday on the tarmac of the Turkish capital's airport, experts had serious doubts about the government's story.
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The official explanation "sounds a bit too good to be true," said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat who chairs the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies. "There are some very legitimate and unanswered questions about how this happened."
The hostages — whose number included two small children — were seized from the Turkish Consulate in Mosul after the Islamic State group overran the Iraqi city on June 11. Turkish leaders gave only the broadest outlines of their rescue Saturday.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the release was the work of the country's intelligence agency rather than a special forces operation.
"After intense efforts that lasted days and weeks, in the early hours our citizens were handed over to us and we brought them back," Davutoglu said.
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Davutoglu was the star of the homecoming ceremony Saturday, flying the hostages back to Ankara on his plane and delivering an impassioned address to the crowd. Families rushed the aircraft to greet their returning loved ones. The ex-hostages emerged wearing clean dresses and suits and showed little sign of having been held captive by fanatical militants for more than three months.
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The hostages' joyous reunion at the airport came as an enormous relief after the recent beheadings of other hostages — two U.S. journalists and a British aid worker — by the Islamic State group. The gruesome deaths briefly re-ignited a debate over whether the U.S. or British government should pay ransoms to free hostages.
'No conditions' for release
Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency reported no ransom had been paid and "no conditions were accepted in return for their release," although it didn't cite any source for its reporting.
The agency said the hostages had been held at eight separate addresses in Mosul and their whereabouts were monitored by drones and other means.
The Iraqi government said it had no information about the rescue.
The hostages declined to answer all but the most general questions, although a couple hinted at ill treatment or death threats.
Consul general threatened
Ex-hostage Alptekin Esirgun told Anadolou that militants held a gun to Consul General Ozturk Yilmaz's head and tried to force him to make a statement.
Another former hostage, Alparslan Yel, said the Islamic militants "treated us a little better because we are Muslims. But we weren't that comfortable. There was a war going on."
I think it's fair to say that we haven't been told the full story.- Security analyst Aaron Stein
Yilmaz thanked Turkish officials but gave no details about the captivity or release.
"I haven't seen my family for 102 days. All I want to do is to go home with them," he told journalists.
How the hostages travelled from Mosul to Turkey and why the Islamic State would relinquish such a useful bargaining chip remained unclear.
"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.
It's also unclear whether the release will change Turkey's policy toward the Islamic State. It had been reluctant to join a coalition to defeat the militant group, citing the safety of its 49 kidnapped citizens.
But even with the hostages' release Stein said he doubted that Turkey would suddenly adopt a much more muscular attitude toward the militants.
"There will some changes, but not as much as people hope," he said.
In Washington, one U.S. official said Saturday that while the Obama administration was pleased with Turkey's contributions so far, it hoped that the change in circumstances of the hostages would allow Turkey to take on a more robust role. The official was not authorized to speak publicly about diplomatic matters.
The successful operation was likely to prove a boon to Turkey's government. Davutoglu, flanked by Yilmaz and others, made sure to highlight Turkey's success and blast the political opposition. He also thanked the "nameless heroes" involved in the release.