Dozens of Turkish hostages seized by the Islamic State group in Iraq were freed Saturday, resolving a serious crisis which Turkish officials had long cited as a reason to avoid moving aggressively against the violent militant group.
The 49 hostages were captured from the Turkish Consulate in Mosul, Iraq on June 11, when the Islamic State group overran the city in its surge to seize large swaths of Iraq and Syria. But the circumstances of their release — which drew flag waving crowds to the Turkish capital's airport — were 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 when they arrived at Ankara airport around midday Saturday.
Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency reported no ransom had been paid and "no conditions were accepted in return for their release" but the organization didn't cite any source for its reporting.
"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.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the release was the result of the intelligence agency's "own methods," and not a special forces operations, but he didn't elaborate.
"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.
Families broke through security lines and rushed toward the plane to greet loved ones as they descended the stairs of Davutoglu's plane, whose arrival at Ankara's airport was broadcast live on Turkish television.
The joyous scene at the airport contrasts with the recent beheadings of two U.S. journalists and a British aid worker by the Islamic State group.
Hostages quizzed by journalists as they emerged from the plane said they couldn't go into detail as to the nature of their ordeal, but a couple of them hinted at ill treatment and death threats.
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, Alparslan Yel, said that the Islamic militants "treated us a little better because we are Muslims. But we weren't that comfortable. There was a war going on."
Turkey had been reluctant to join a coalition to defeat the Islamic State group, citing the safety of its 49 kidnapped citizens, but Stein said he doubted Turkey would suddenly adopt a much more muscular attitude toward the organization. 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 some changes, but not as much as people hope," he said.
Meanwhile the successful operation was likely to prove a boon to Turkey's government. During an impassioned speech following his flight's arrival in Ankara, Davutoglu, flanked by Yilmaz and others, took the opportunity to highlight Turkey's success and blast the political opposition. Davutoglu thanked the "nameless heroes" who were involved in the release.
Yilmaz, the freed consul general, thanked Turkish officials involved in his release but did not give details about their captivity or how they were freed.
He refused to take more questions, saying: "I haven't seen my family for 102 days. All I want to do is to go home with them."
It wasn't clear where the release took place, but the Anadolu Agency said the hostages had been held in eight separate addresses in Mosul. Their whereabouts were monitored by drones and other means, it said.
Meanwhile, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the Turks were freed through "a 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.
Iraqi military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said the government had no information about the release of the hostages and didn't know where they had been held or where they were released.
Thirty-two Turkish truck drivers who were also seized in Mosul on June 6 were released a month later. Turkey did not provide information surrounding their release.
Satter reported from Istanbul. Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.