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IS Militants Release 49 Turkish Hostages


Freed Turkish hostages are welcomed at the airport in Ankara, Sept. 20, 2014.
Freed Turkish hostages are welcomed at the airport in Ankara, Sept. 20, 2014.

Turkey's prime minister said 49 Turkish hostages seized by Islamic State militants in Iraq in June have been freed.

Turkey had cited the hostages as a roadblock to participating in a NATO coalition to defeat the militants.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Saturday the hostages were released earlier in the day after what he described as "intense efforts" that lasted weeks. Few other details were made public, but Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency reported that no ransom was paid. It did not cite a source for the information.

Television footage showed the former captives arriving at Ankara airport, greeted by overjoyed family members and friends.

Davutoglu said he was honored to share the happy news after the developments, which made up for weeks of sleepless nights and worry.

'Successful operation'

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the Turkish hostages were freed in "a successful operation."

Erdogan in his statement paid tribute to Turkey's intelligence service, saying through patience and dedication they had performed a rescue operation.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry said the hostages, who were held for 101 days, are all in good condition.

The hostages, including diplomats, soldiers and children, were kidnapped from Turkey's consulate in Mosul, Iraq, on June 11, as Islamic State militants overran the city and seized swaths of Iraq and Syria.

Local Turkish media reported the hostages, escorted by Turkish intelligence officers, arrived in a convoy of cars at the border city of Sanliurfa.

Details of the release remain unclear. There had been reports that the Islamic State group had been demanding as much as a $100 million ransom.

Ankara had cited the hostages as a factor limiting Turkey's participation in actions against the militants.

NATO coalition

NATO member Turkey borders Syria and Iraq, and is seen as a key member of the international coalition against the Islamic State fighters.

Earlier this year, 32 Turkish truck drivers were also seized in Mosul on June 6 but were released a month later. Turkey has not provided any information about their release.

The release of the Turkish hostages comes after the recent beheadings of two U.S. journalists and a British aid worker by the Islamic State group. The group has threatened to kill another hostage, British aid worker Alan Henning, who was kidnapped near the Syrian city of al-Dana last December.

Henning's wife Barbara on Saturday pleaded with IS militants to release her husband. In a statement issued by Britain's Foreign Office, she urged the group to free the 47-year old former taxi driver.

A well-known Muslim jihadi leader, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, has posted a statement on his website calling for Henning to be freed, saying non-Muslims who are helping Muslims should be protected, not kidnapped and put to death. Maqdisi called on the Islamic State militants to release Henning and other aid workers who entered Syria with a guarantee of protection.

Also Saturday, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said more than 60,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees fleeing Islamic State fighters have entered the country since it opened its border on Friday. Turkey allowed the refugees to cross the frontier as Islamic State militants advanced on the town of Kobani after seizing nearby territory and villages in recent days.

Hundreds of Kurdish fighters are streaming into Syria toward Kobani, but witnesses say they are lightly armed compared to the Islamic State militants.

Some information for this report comes from AP and Reuters.