Dozens of Turkish hostages seized by Islamic militants in Iraq three months ago have been freed and safely returned to Turkey, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said, ending Turkey's most serious hostage crisis.
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.
Their release contrasts with the recent beheadings of two US journalists and a British aid worker by the Islamic State group, but it wasn't immediately clear what Turkey had done to secure the safe return of the hostages.
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said the hostages are 49 Turkish consulate employees — 46 Turks and three local Iraqis. They include Consul General Ozturk Yilmaz, other diplomats, children and special forces police.
The hostages were released early on Saturday and had arrived in Turkey, Davutoglu told Turkish reporters during a visit to Baku, Azerbaijan. He cut his visit short to meet them in the province of Sanliurfa, near Turkey's border with Syria and was bringing them back to Ankara on his plane.
He didn't say where the release took place, but Turkey's state-run 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.
Turkey had been reluctant to join a coalition to defeat the Islamic State group, citing the safety of its 49 kidnapped citizens. The United States had been careful not to push Turkey too hard as it tried to free the hostages.
The extremist group beheaded two US journalists and a British aid worker who were working in Syria as payback for airstrikes that Washington has launched against them in Iraq.
Turkish leaders gave only limited details of the release and it wasn't clear what they had done to avoid a similar outcome for their hostages.
The Anadolu Agency reported no ransom had been paid and "no conditions were accepted in return for their release." The agency, which didn't cite any source, also reported there were five or six previous attempts to secure the Turks' release, but none of them were successful.
Davutoglu said the release was the result of the intelligence agency's "own methods," and not a "point operation" involving special forces, but 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.
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.