ANKARA (Reuters) - Thirty-two truck drivers abducted by Islamist militants in Iraq three weeks ago were handed over to Turkish officials on Thursday and Ankara is working to secure the release of other Turks held there, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said.
There was no news on the 49 remaining Turks, including special forces soldiers, diplomats and children, who were seized in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants on June 11, a day after the truck drivers were taken captive.
“The 32 drivers kidnapped in Mosul have been received by our consulate and they are currently en route to Arbil,” Davutoglu told a news conference in the Turkish capital.
He said a Turkish Airlines plane had taken off from Istanbul for the Iraqi Kurdistan capital Arbil and would bring the drivers to Ankara on Thursday evening.
“We will continue to work extensively on the release of our citizens who were left behind,” he said, adding that the drivers were in good health.
Turkey has close trade and political relations with the Kurdish-controlled area located to the east of Mosul and which has not been targeted by ISIL.
The truck drivers, who were abducted by ISIL militants while they were delivering diesel, were initially held at a power plant in the Gyarah region of Mosul.
The seizure of so many Turks in Iraq has prompted criticism of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government for failing to foresee the danger and to evacuate the Mosul consulate sooner.
But Erdogan, who declared his candidacy for the August presidential election on Tuesday, has accused his opponents of trying to make political capital out of a highly sensitive security situation.
Turkey had warned that it would retaliate if any of its 80 nationals seized by the al Qaeda splinter group were harmed and ambassadors of the NATO defense alliance held an emergency meeting in Brussels at Turkey’s request.
ISIL this week renamed itself the Islamic State and declared its leader “caliph” - the historical title of successors of the Prophet Mohammad who ruled the Muslim world - after its forces captured swathes of territory in a lightning drive across northern Iraq.
The offensive threatens to dismember Iraq and leaves Turkey facing a widening Islamist insurgency in two of its southern neighbors, with ISIL also making territorial gains in Syria near the Turkish border.
It was not clear if any demands had been made by ISIL for the release of its prisoners - whether those that have since been freed or those still being held.
Iraq is Turkey’s second biggest export market and largest oil supplier. The Turkish Foreign Ministry says an estimated 120,000 Turks are registered as resident in the country.
Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun, Ceyda Caglayan and Ece Toksabay; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Mark Heinrich