ISTANBUL (Reuters) - President Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday no ransom had been paid for the release of Turkish hostages held by Islamic State but he declined to be drawn on whether their release freed Turkey’s hand to take a more active stance against the insurgents.
Turkish intelligence agents brought 46 hostages seized by Islamic State militants in northern Iraq back to Turkey on Saturday after more than three months in captivity, in what Erdogan described as a covert rescue operation.
“A material negotiation is totally out of the question ... This is a diplomatic success,” Erdogan said before leaving for a gathering of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
Security sources told Reuters on Saturday 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, including 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.
Their capture had left Turkey, a member of the NATO military alliance and a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, hamstrung in its response to the Sunni insurgents, who have carved out a self-proclaimed caliphate in parts of eastern Syria and western Iraq, just over the Turkish border.
Addressing the rescued hostages and their families earlier on Sunday, Erdogan said Turkey’s main hesitation about fully committing to a U.S.-led coalition to tackle Islamic State had been concern about their safety.
“Our main duty was to think about the security of your lives. At the same time it is also our duty to think about Turkey’s reputation,” Erdogan said.
“For some coalition demands we could say yes immediately. But we could not say yes (to others) because we had 49 lives and we said that we can’t take a step without resolving this.”
Three of the 49 hostages were local people, not Turks.
Washington won backing earlier this month for a military coalition from 10 Arab nations - Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and six Gulf states including wealthy rivals Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Turkey attended the talks in Jeddah but did not sign up.
Asked if Turkey might now commit more strongly to the anti-IS coalition, Erdogan gave no direct reply but said he and the government would evaluate the issue on his return from the U.N. General Assembly.
“What happens from now on is a separate issue ... We need to decide what kind of attitude to take,” he said.
President Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, architects of a foreign policy which envisages Sunni Muslim Turkey as a regional power, have been reluctant to engage in action they fear could strengthen their enemy, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and exacerbate sectarian tensions inside Iraq.
Erdogan also said on Sunday he had discussed a buffer zone on the Syrian border with U.S. President Barack Obama and other allies at a NATO summit in Wales earlier this month.
Erdogan, who moved to the presidential palace only last month after serving as Turkey’s prime minister for more than a decade, will meet U.S. Vice President Joe Biden at the U.N. General Assembly meeting.
Editing by Gareth Jones