ANKARA (Reuters) - Thirty-two truck drivers abducted by Islamist militants in Iraq three weeks ago arrived home in Turkey on Thursday, and Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said efforts to secure the release of 49 more abductees were continuing.
There were emotional scenes as the drivers were reunited with their families, with children and relatives running to embrace their loved ones at the airport in southeastern Sanliurfa border province.
The drivers, who were held captive for 23 days, appeared in good health and said they had not been mistreated by the militants.
“They first read verses from the Quran and told us that we are free this morning and that we can call our families,” one truck driver who was released said as he held his son in his arms. “We ate bread, cucumbers and slept in our trucks.”
Drivers declined to answer questions on the 49 Turks still held in Iraq, including special forces soldiers, diplomats and children, who were seized in the northern city of Mosul by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants on June 11.
Two truck drivers told CNN Turk television that Turkish officials had advised them not to speak on the issue.
“We will continue to work extensively on the release of our citizens who were left behind,” Davutoglu said in a press conference.
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 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 affecting 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, either those that have 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 and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Hugh Lawson