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32 Turkish hostages freed in Iraq

The freed Turkish truck drivers flew back home to Turkey on Thursday while almost 50 other Turks are still thought to be captive in Iraq
The truck drivers who were kidnapped, are welcomed by their relatives at Sanliurfa Airport, Turkey (AFP)

Extremist militants in Iraq have freed 32 Turkish truck drivers that had been held hostage for three weeks in a mass kidnapping that shocked Turkey, the foreign minister said on Thursday.

The truck drivers are now on their way back to Turkey through northern Iraq, but a separate group of almost 50 kidnapped Turks remain in captivity, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters.

"The 32 drivers were delivered to our consul," Davutoglu said in Ankara, adding that they were now on their way to the city of Erbil in the relatively stable Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.

Previous reports had said 31 truck drivers had been held. They had been kidnapped by militants from the extremist group the Islamic State (IS) who now control swathes of the country.

Davutoglu said a plane had taken off from Istanbul to fly the Turkish citizens from Erbil to Ankara this evening.

Davutoglu said that the foreign ministry had been informed of the impending release Wednesday night by the Turkish intelligence agency but had not made any announcement until now for security reasons.

He said he had spoken with one of the drivers Thursday and said that they were unharmed, although one of them may have been in need of medical treatment.

A government official told AFP that one of the drivers who had been suffering from heart problems was taken to Erbil in an ambulance.

Turkish television channels aired pictures of the smiling drivers on a bus.

Propaganda tool

The Foreign Ministry has lashed out at recent media claims that the release of abducted Turkish nationals in Iraq will be used as a propaganda tool as part of the ruling Justice and Development Party's campaign for the upcoming presidential election.

Calling such news reports "ugly and unfounded accusations," the ministry said in a written statement Wednesday that all relevant government agencies had been working carefully to ensure the safe return of the abducted Turks.

"Nothing is more important than the security of our citizens. We find it regrettable that a sensitive issue like this, which concerns both our national interests and the families of the abductees, is being used to make up false accusations," the statement said.  

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised to bring home the rest of the consulate staff.

Speaking at an Iftar dinner to break the Ramadan fast, Erdogan said: “Turkey’s 32 truck drivers detained by ISIL [IS] – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – have safely arrived in Turkey after their 23 day-long ordeal in Mosul, Iraq.”

Working day and night

Militants storming the Turkish consulate in Mosul had also kidnapped 49 other Turks, including the consul, staff members, guards and three children.

There was, however, no information regarding their whereabouts.

"We will continue to work day and night to bring back the remaining citizens," said Davutoglu.

The official said negotiations were continuing with different groups in Iraq, including tribes, for the release of Turkey's abducted citizens.

The kidnappings sparked intense concern in Ankara over the rise of extremist groups across the border in Syria and Iraq.

Turkey, which backs the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has repeatedly denied accusations that it is itself to blame for the rise of the extremist rebellion in Syria and Iraq.

Turkey blacklisted IS as a terrorist organisation in 2013.

The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also come under fire for its failure to grasp the severity of the extremist threat across the border and evacuate the Mosul compound before the consulate was stormed.

Turkey said it evacuated its consulate in the southern Iraqi city of Basra a week after militants attacked its mission in Mosul.

The country's national carrier Turkish Airlines, which had ceased to operate out of Mosul, put on additional flights to repatriate Iraq's Turkish residents.

The government has so far favoured diplomacy over force in response to the kidnappings.

A Turkish court last month imposed a controversial blackout on media coverage of the kidnapping of the Turks, after Erdogan said the reports were "risking the lives of our people".

The government has faced backlash from opposition parties accusing the Erdogan government of using the release as a propoganda tool in the run up to presidential elections in August where the prime minister is a clear favourite.

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