Turkey declined on Tuesday to either confirm or deny reports that dozens of Turkish hostages abducted by Islamic State (IS) insurgents in Iraq were set free in exchange for the release of IS militants held by Syrian rebels.
Citing security sources, the Hurriyet daily said that Syrian rebels released 50 members of IS, including the family of a key radical leader, in exchange for the release of Turkish hostages.
“We neither confirm nor deny a swap deal,” a government official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The official declined to comment on the details of the top-secret operation which was “entirely under the control of the National Intelligence Organization” (MIT), Turkey’s spy agency.
The 46 Turks including Turkey’s consul, children and soldiers abducted by IS jihadists from Turkey’s consulate in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul returned home Saturday to nationwide jubilation after more than three months in captivity.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the operation as a “secret rescue operation” by the MIT. But officials have kept a strict silence on the details, saying only that no ransom was paid.
The family of IS leader Haji Bakr — who was first reported killed in Aleppo in January after his group clashed with a unit of the Free Syrian Army — were among those released by the Syrian rebels, Hurriyet said.
Liwa al-Tawhid, an armed Syrian insurgent rebel group that split from the rebel Free Syrian Army and is fighting to oust President Bashar Assad, agreed to free members of IS, also known as ISIL or ISIS, after rounds of talks, according to the report.
The rebels released the 50 IS captives near Aleppo in return for the release of Turkish hostages at Akcakale in the southeast on the Syrian border, Hurriyet said.
The Turkish hostages reached Syria’s northern province of Raqqa on Friday. But their captors waited until 5:00 am Saturday for the Syrian group rebels to release the IS captives, Hurriyet said.
Ankara has been accused by some analysts of helping to fuel the rise of IS jihadists with its support of Islamist rebels fighting Assad but has vehemently denied backing their brutal campaign.
The jihadists now control swathes of Iraq and northern Syria and are now pushing on Kurdish-dominated areas in Syria, prompting a huge influx of refugees into Turkey.
Turkey had so far refused to become militarily involved in the U.S.-led operation against IS insurgents, so as not to endanger the lives of the hostages.
But despite their release, Turkey appears keen to stick to its position of keeping a low profile in the anti-IS fight, even as the U.S. expands its air strikes into Syria.
“The issue of hostages was one of our concerns. But not the only one,” the Turkish official told AFP.
“Turkey is the only country that has a border with ISIL. We are a direct target,” the source said.
“No policy has changed 180 degrees,” the official said, adding Erdogan would have diplomatic contacts on the sidelines of the annual U.N. general assembly meetings in New York.
The United States — which insisted it understood Turkey’s sensitivities in not joining the military campaign — now expects Ankara to step up its cooperation after the release of its citizens.
Turkey “first needed to deal with their hostage situation,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told MSNBC on Monday. “Now the proof will be in the pudding.”
But Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Ankara would not allow itself to be put under any pressure, saying: “Turkey is not a country which can be subjected to a test.”
“Turkey does not have to prove anything… Turkey makes its own decisions,” he told the private NTV television late on Monday.