Dozens of Turkish hostages seized by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq three months ago were freed Saturday, resolving a serious crisis which Turkish officials had long cited as a reason to avoid moving aggressively against the armed group.
The 49 hostages – who included Turkey's consul-general, diplomats' children and special forces soldiers – were seized from the Turkish consulate in Mosul on June 11 during a lightning advance by ISIL.
Relieved family members of the hostages rushed to the steps of the plane carrying them to the Turkish capital of Ankara from the southern city of Sanliurfa, where they had earlier been welcomed by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu who hailed their return a victory.
"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," Davutoglu said.
However, the circumstances of their release remained 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.
Independent Turkish broadcaster NTV said Turkey did not pay a ransom and that no other country was involved. There were also no clashes with ISIL fighters during the operation that secured the captives' release, NTV added.
Without naming its sources, the broadcaster said Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) had tracked the hostages as they were moved to eight different locations during their 101 days in captivity.
Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency, which also didn't cite any sources, reported there were five or six previous attempts to secure the Turks' release, but none of them were successful.
"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.
Following news of the hostages’ release, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan thanked Davutoglu for overseeing the “successful operation.”
"I thank the prime minister and his colleagues for this operation which was pre-planned, whose every detail was calculated, which lasted through the night in total secrecy and ended successfully this morning," Erdogan said in a statement.
The release of the Turkish hostages contrasts with the recent beheadings of two U.S. journalists and a British aid worker by ISIL.
President Barack Obama, who is lobbying the international community to create a coalition to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIL, has authorized U.S. military airstrikes against the group in Iraq and is drawing up plans for military action in Syria — where it's headquartered.
However, Turkey had made it clear that it did not want to take a frontline role in the operation, partly because of the risks it posed for its hostages. Consequently, the U.S. had been careful not to push Turkey too hard to join the coalition.
Now that its hostages are free, it's not clear what role, if any, Turkey will play in the coalition. It's wary of supporting anti-ISIL ground forces that include Kurdish battalions — some of which are aligned with the PKK, a Kurdish movement that has waged a long and bloody war for Kurdish rights in Turkey.
Stein said he doubted Turkey would suddenly adopt a much more muscular attitude toward ISIL. 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," he said.
Al Jazeera and wire services