ANKARA: Islamist militants in Iraq have freed 32 Turkish truck drivers held hostage for three weeks in a mass kidnapping that shocked Turkey, the foreign minister said 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 Irbil 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 jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) who now control swathes of the country.
Davutoglu said a plane from Istanbul arrived to fly the Turkish citizens from Irbil to Ankara.
Davutoglu said 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 but one of them may need medical treatment.
A government official told AFP one of the drivers, suffering from heart problems, had been brought to Irbil in an ambulance.
Turkish television channels aired pictures of the drivers on a bus, all looking relaxed and smiling.
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,” Davutoglu said.
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 radical Islamist groups across the border in Syria and Iraq.
Turkey, which backs the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad, has repeatedly denied accusations that it is itself to blame for the growing presence of Islamist insurgents in Syria and Iraq.
Turkey blacklisted ISIS as a terrorist organization in 2013.
The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also come under fire for its failure to grasp the severity of the radical Islamist 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 attacks its mission in Mosul.
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 favored diplomacy over force in response to the kidnapping.
A Turkish court last month imposed a controversial blackout on 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 tool in the runup to presidential elections in August.