* Drivers recount being seized at gunpoint by ISIL fighters
* One driver says fear gave way to understanding
* Diplomats, soldiers, children still held
By Humeyra Pamuk
SANLIURFA, Turkey, July 8 (Reuters) - When truck driver Vehbi Demir was handcuffed by masked Islamists wielding machine guns and driven to an unknown destination, he little imagined he would end up sympathising with the militants’ cause.
Demir was among 32 Turkish truck drivers seized by fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL) in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul last month, as the Sunni insurgents seized territory in an offensive that threatens to break up the country.
Jubilant crowds greeted the drivers in the eastern Turkish town of Sanliurfa after their surprise release last week, but 49 others, including diplomats, special forces soldiers and children, are still being held by ISIL.
The group, which has changed its name to Islamic State and declared its leader the head of a medieval-style caliphate, was known in Turkey for little more than brutality and savage social media postings before the hostage crisis erupted last month.
“I knew them from these videos on the Internet in which they behead people,” Demir told Reuters of the first few terrifying hours as ISIL fighters seized the power station his truck had been re-supplying.
But during his 23 days in captivity, Demir, a Turk of Sunni Arab heritage, used his Arabic language skills to interpret between his fellow drivers and their captors.
Brief conversations turned into longer discussions about why the Sunni fighters took up arms against Iraq’s Shi‘ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, and Demir found himself increasingly sympathising with their plight.
“After I spoke to them and heard their stories, I was almost going to ask them to give me a gun and suggest fighting alongside them,” he told Reuters at his home near Sanliurfa.
“They told me how they came home and their wives, sisters were gone. How Maliki’s soldiers did horrible things to their women in front of their eyes. They said Maliki was eventually going to kill them, so they chose to fight.”
The speed of the Islamic State’s metamorphosis from al-Qaeda offshoot to regional player has surprised many, its growth fuelled by anger amongst Iraq’s Sunni minority over Maliki’s perceived sectarianism. It is a resentment understood by many across the border in Sunni-dominated Turkey.
Worldwide attention on the group has until recently centred on its ability to attract thousands of European and North African foreign fighters to its campaigns in Iraq and neighbouring Syria, as well as its brutal tactics.
The Islamic State has posted videos and pictures on social media that appear to show captured Iraqi troops being massacred, whilst New York-based Human Rights Watch has accused them of showing an “utter disregard for the rules of war.”
But Demir says during his captivity he saw a different side to the young Sunni men who make up the group’s rank and file.
“They gave us mattresses to sleep on, while they slept on concrete themselves. They drank the water from the pond, but gave us bottled water. They said they like Turkish people and they don’t harm anyone who confesses and calls himself a Muslim,” he said.
Not all of Demir’s companions were so sanguine about their time as hostages. Mehmet Olgun is safely back at home in the bustling city of Sanliurfa, but he still weeps as he remembers the terror he felt during his captivity.
“On the first day when they brought us to the air base, one of them held a grenade with a pulled pin in front of us and said ‘run away if you can’. We were dead silent, with fear and shock,” the exhausted looking 46-year-old said.
For his part, safely back with his family, truck driver Olgun has no desire to return to Iraq.
“I am home but I still can not believe it. I am never ever going back to Mosul. There is no chance,” he said. (Editing by Jonny Hogg, Nick Tattersall and Giles Elgood)