(Reuters) – Turkish intelligence agents brought 46 hostages seized by Islamic State militants in northern Iraq back to Turkeyon Saturday after more than three months in captivity, in what President Tayyip Erdogan described as a covert rescue operation.
Security sources told Reuters the hostages had been released overnight in the town of Tel Abyad on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey after being transferred from the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa, Islamic State’s stronghold.
Officials declined to give details of the rescue operation.
The 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 the Sunni insurgents.
Family members rushed to the steps of the plane which brought the freed captives to the Turkish capital Ankara from the southern city of Sanliurfa, where they had earlier been welcomed by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
Groups of supporters waved Turkish flags as Davutoglu hugged the consul-general and members of the diplomats’ families before addressing the crowd from the roof of a bus, saying the authorities had worked tirelessly for the hostages’ release.
“I thank the prime minister and his colleagues for the pre-planned, carefully calculated and secretly-conducted operation throughout the night,” Erdogan said in a statement.
“MIT (the Turkish intelligence agency) has followed the situation very sensitively and patiently since the beginning and, as a result, conducted a successful rescue operation.”