Turkish hostages held by IS in Iraq released

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Media captionThe BBC's Mark Lowen says there is "huge relief" in Turkey

Dozens of hostages seized by Islamic State (IS) from the Turkish consulate in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul have been freed and are back in Turkey.

The 49 were greeted by flag-waving crowds in Ankara after arriving in southern Turkey early on Saturday.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkey's intelligence agency had led the operation, but gave few details.

The hostages were seized after IS militants overran Mosul in a rapid advance in June.

Turkey has refused direct involvement in the military campaign against IS partly because of fears over the hostages' safety.

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Image caption Ahmet Davutoglu, centre, celebrated with the hostages on their arrival in Ankara

The 49 were employees from the consulate - 46 Turks and three local Iraqis - officials said. They included diplomatic staff, children, and special forces police.

Mr Davutoglu described their release as "joyful news".

"In the early hours [of Saturday] our citizens were handed over to us and we brought them back to our country," he said.

They were all in good health, he added.

Analysis: Mark Lowen, BBC News, Istanbul

When Turkey said it would not sign up to the military coalition against Islamic State, it was galling for the US. Turkey has the second largest army in Nato and hosts a huge US airbase. The reason was clear: with 49 hostages held by IS in Iraq, there was the fear of retribution if Turkey played too active a role.

Now that the group has been released, will it change Ankara's stance? Unlikely. Turkey was reluctant to get too involved in the fight against IS. It shares long, vulnerable borders with Iraq and Syria, there is some recruitment of militants on its territory and it has large commercial interests in the region, which it fears could be targeted.

Critics say Turkey's decision is because it has supported the militants against Syria's President Assad, something Ankara denies. There is a precedent. In 2003, Turkey also refused the use of its base for the Iraq invasion. This vital western ally is wary of the fights it picks.

Mr Davutoglu flew to Sanliurfa in southern Turkey, where the hostages had arrived, and brought them back to the capital Ankara on his plane.

There were emotional scenes at Esenboga airport as the hostages were reunited with their loved ones.

Mr Davutoglu gave few details of the operation to release them but broadcaster NTV said a ransom had not been paid. It did not say how it obtained the information.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also gave little away, saying in a statement: "I thank the prime minister and his colleagues for this carefully planned, detailed and secret operation, which continued all night and was successfully completed early in the morning."

Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, quoting sources, said there had been no clashes with militants and the operation was based on negotiations.

Reuters, also quoting sources, said the hostages had been released overnight in the Syrian town of Tel Abyad near the Turkish border after being transferred from the Syrian city of Raqqa, an IS stronghold.

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Image caption Syrian Kurds were allowed to cross into Turkey under the watchful eye of Turkish troops

More than 30 Turkish lorry drivers, who were also seized in Mosul in June, were freed a month later but details of their release were not made public.

IS has seized large areas of Iraq and Syria, triggering a multi-national campaign to confront it.

The US has carried out more than 170 air strikes in Iraq since August. French jets carried out their first strikes on Friday.

Meanwhile, Turkish officials said about 45,000 Syrian Kurds fleeing an advance by IS had crossed a stretch of Turkey's south-west border opened for them on Friday.

Turkish troops had earlier blocked them from crossing, triggering angry protests from Turkish Kurds.

Turkey has been under pressure from Western countries to tighten up its borders with Syria and Iraq.

More than 847,000 Syrian refugees have crossed into Turkey since the civil war began in 2011.

Iran 'has role'

More than 30 nations have joined a US-led coalition to take on IS militants, but Turkey has said it will only allow humanitarian and logistical operations from a Nato air base on its soil.

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Image caption Thousands of Iraqis fled Mosul after IS seized the city in a lightning advance from Syria

On Thursday, the US Senate approved Mr Obama's plan to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels to fight IS.

US air strikes are now expected in Syria after the Senate approved President Barack Obama's plan to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels.

However, he has ruled out a ground operation in Iraq or Syria.