Turkey welcomes end of hostage crisis but questions left unanswered

10:00 | 22.09.2014
Turkey welcomes end of hostage crisis but questions left unanswered

Turkey welcomes end of hostage crisis but questions left unanswered

Forty-six Turkish citizens who were kidnapped by the radical Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) over three months ago from Turkey's Consulate General in Mosul were freed without bloodshed or a ransom payment, according to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but a number of questions remain unanswered.

Erdoğan said on Sunday that Turkish officials did not bargain with the ISIL militants for the release of the hostages. He said their release was a result of “diplomatic and political negotiations,” and he did not elaborate further.

“This is a diplomatic victory,” Erdoğan said while speaking to journalists at the airport in Ankara before his departure to New York for the annual United Nations summit.

Erdoğan stressed that the “pre-planned” operation for the release of the hostages was “entirely national,” -- led by the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT). “The intelligence officials and Turkish military have been following our citizens step by step, under very difficult conditions and with patience,” the president said.

When asked whether the Turkish hostages were released in exchange for three ISIL militants, Erdoğan said it's not important whether there was an exchange or not because, in the end, Turkey brought its citizens back to the country.

It is not clear how Turkish authorities managed to secure the release of the Turkish citizens from the hands of ISIL when the same group has beheaded Western hostages.

ISIL beheaded two US journalists and a British aid worker in Syria recently as payback for airstrikes that the US has been conducting against ISIL targets in Iraq.

Turkey has been the target of Western criticism over the last few years and has been accused of turning a blind eye to foreign fighters from Europe traveling to Syria via Turkey to join ISIL. Ankara categorically denies such claims.

Takva Haber, a news portal allegedly close to ISIL, claimed on Saturday that the Turkish hostages were released by the order of ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi following the Turkish government's statements refusing to be part of a multi-national coalition effort against ISIL.

The portal also claimed that Turkey negotiated with ISIL militants on the hostage issue and that this means Turkey indirectly recognizes ISIL -- which calls itself the Islamic State.

“Five days after the US started forming a coalition to invade Syria and Iraq, the [alleged] negotiations [between Turkey and ISIL] were finalized and the hostages were handed over to Turkish authorities via a secure road in Syria,” the website reported.

Criticizing the local press for not being sensitive and openly discussing the hostage crisis, Erdoğan said during the NATO summit in Wales on Sept. 4-5 that Turkey can only provide humanitarian aid to those in Iraq and Syria due to the sensitive hostage issue.

US President Barack Obama's administration has been working on building a coalition against ISIL.

Erdoğan stressed that due to the hostage situation, Turkey could not sign the communiqué in Jeddah in early September to take part in the regional coalition against ISIL.

“What we are going to do now is another matter,” the president said on Sunday. In regards to the extent to rich Turkey will contribute to the coalition against ISIL, he continued, “I have talked to the prime minister, and after the UN summit we will determine what will be our approach.”

The president also said that during the NATO summit in Wales, he spoke to Obama and other NATO allies about the possibility of establishing a buffer zone on the Syrian border. Mentioning recent visits to Turkey by US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry, Erdoğan stressed that Turkish and US officials have talked about what sort of joint steps can be taken against ISIL and what their limitations are.

Erdoğan said he will have a better chance to talk about these issues extensively during the UN summit, but he said he has no planned meeting with Obama. Instead, Erdoğan said, US Vice President Joe Biden requested to meet with him during the sidelines of the UN summit. The Turkish president added that Biden is mainly in charge of the Iraqi issue.

The Turkish hostages, including Mosul Consul General Öztürk Yılmaz, arrived in Turkey's Şanlıurfa province early on Saturday.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who was paying a visit to Azerbaijan when the news of the hostage release broke out, cut his trip short and traveled to Şanlıurfa to meet with the freed hostages. After being given fresh clothes, the 46 Turks traveled to Ankara with Davutoğlu and were welcomed by their families and press on the tarmac at Esenboğa.

Erdoğan met with the freed Turks and their families on Sunday at his presidential office and told them that they will be on leave for one month.

Main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) İstanbul Deputy Sezgin Tanrıkulu has submitted a parliamentary question, asking Prime Minister Davutoğlu to explain the details of Turkey's “diplomatic bargain” to secure the release of the Turkish hostages.

Following Erdoğan's remarks before his departure to New York, Tanrıkulu claimed in his parliamentary question that Erdoğan had confessed that he bargained with ISIL. Criticizing Erdoğan's statement that the release of the hostages was a “diplomatic victory,” Tanrıkulu said what Erdoğan means is very clear.

In his question, Tanrıkulu asked about the preconditions of Turkey's diplomatic bargain with ISIL and how many ISIL militants were released in exchange for the Turkish hostages. He also asked what sort of crimes those ISIL militants might have committed.


Details are not clear


The details of the rescue operation are still unclear, as Turkish officials are reluctant to provide any more information, citing the sensitivity of the issue. The Turkish government imposed a gag order immediately after the seizure of the Mosul consulate general, effectively preventing press questioning any failure on the part of the government.

Spy chief Hakan Fidan was quoted by Milliyet daily on Sunday saying the rescue operation posed many risks and the move for the release of the hostages had been postponed a few times.

According to Turkish media outlets, the hostages were told they would be released soon late on Thursday. The hostages entered Turkey after a bus trip through the Akçakale border gate on the Turkey-Syria border. Milliyet reported that the hostages travelled about 10 hours and some ISIL militants accompanied them as far as the Akçakale border.

Turkey's Mosul Consul-General Öztürk Yılmaz told Turkish press on Sunday that ISIL militants had changed their location about eight or nine times. Each time they were blindfolded and put on a bus to travel there. Yılmaz said he had taken his cellphone apart and distributed the parts to other hostages, and then would reassemble it again, so he was able to keep communicating with the Turkish authorities, including the president, prime minister and foreign minister.

He also said they had been forced to watch brutal beheadings by the ISIL militants many times. One of the hostages, Alparslan Yel, said the hostages were treated well because they were Muslims.

Main opposition party Republican People's Party (CHP) deputy Umut Oran said on Saturday that he is happy to see the Turkish hostages returned back to Turkey safely, but there are many questions regarding their release. He pointed out that the prime minister was on a trip to Azerbaijan during the rescue efforts and he said his party would go after the details of this operation.

Opposition National Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli has also welcomed the release of the hostages, but he asked what Turkey has given to the extremist ISIL militants in exchange for the hostages.

Another CHP deputy, Muharrem İnce, according to press reports, said there is no reason to congratulate the government on the release of hostages. “What operation? Who are you kidding? This is theatre. This government has failed the Turkish nation. Our borders are so porous that it is not clear who is coming or going.”

Muammer Taşdelen, the brother of one of the Turkish diplomats who was held captive, also criticized the government's handling of the issue. Speaking to the Hürriyet daily, Taşdelen asked who will be accountable for the Turkish citizens' 101 days in captivity.

He pointed out that the government failed to evacuate the consulate-general in time, despite the warnings and increased threats and asked why the government had failed to take measures. Recalling that his sister's baby boy turned 1 in captivity, Taşdelen said, “Yes we are very happy, but there is no way to describe the pain that we have been exposed to.”


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