Turkey may have freed as many as 180 Islamic State jihadists —including 10 Europeans — in exchange for the release of hostages being held by the group, according to a report published on Monday.
49 Turkish citizens — including diplomats and children — were captured by IS in June when the extremist group seized the Turkish consulate in Iraq's second city of Mosul as it overran a broad swathe of the country in a shock offensive.
However the hostages were freed last month under murky circumstances. The Times said on Monday that it had obtained a list of names of prisoners — thought to be leaked by a government source — that Ankara traded with IS in exchange for the consular staff. They included British citizens Shabazz Suleman, 18 and Hisham Folkard, 26, as well as three French militants, two Swedes, two Macedonians, one Swiss and one Belgian. IS sources had confirmed the legitimacy of the list, The Times added.
Folkard had travelled to Yemen to study Islam, according to his Roman Catholic father quoted in the report, while Suleman, who had been studying at Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe but has been missing since May, had expressed support for "the Islamic caliphate", according to friends.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has previously said that the hostages had been freed after a peaceful "covert operation" but that no ransoms had been paid. He subsequently hinted that a trade could have taken place, however, telling reporters: "You might have an exchange but it takes some effort to prepare for such a thing."
Local media have corroborated the existence of a prisoner swap. The English language Hurriyet Daily News claimed that Syrian rebel group Liwa al-Tawhid, which has strong relations with Ankara, freed 50 IS militants the day that the diplomats were released.
The report of the deal comes after Turkey struck back against US Vice President Joe Biden for comments accusing its government of backing Sunni extremists.
Speaking at Harvard University last week, Biden said that Turkey had helped IS to grow by funding and supplying jihadists along with more moderate rebel groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He added that Turkey was now aware of the danger posed by the group.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Sunday that Turkey would not stand for Biden's remarks, telling supporters in a televised speech: "It is impossible for us to accept this criticism." Erdogan had previously said that if Biden had "used such language" he would now be "a man of the past for me".
Biden made similar statements about the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar, saying the three had given fighters "billions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons".
He has since apologized in phone calls to Turkish and UAE officials.
Meanwhile, the battle for the majority Kurdish Syrian border town of Kobane continues within eyesight of Turkish soil, with one woman Kurdish fighter carrying out a suicide bomb attack on IS, according to local activists.
IS took control of a hill overlooking the town on Saturday although airstrikes conducted by the US-led anti-IS coalition slowed them down, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). Journalists and local activists reported that there is currently an IS flag inside the town itself.
SOHR, which gathers intelligence from a network of local sources, also said that a female commander from the YPG Kurdish defence force blew herself up amid a group of jihadists at an IS position east of Kobane on Saturday. She was named on social media as Arin Mirkan.
The attack isn't unprecedented. An injured YPG fighter being treated in Turkey previously told VICE News that a comrade had killed himself while destroying an IS tank with explosives on the outskirts of Kobane. The fighter also described how a badly injured friend had blown himself up to avoid being captured by IS. The Turkish PKK, the banned group fighting for Kurdish self-determination which is affiliated with the YPG, have also conducted a number of suicide attacks in the past.
Meanwhile the fighting continues to spill over to Turkey, and five people were wounded when a mortar round hit a house, prompting authorities to evacuate part of the border area.
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