Published June 30, 2004
ANKARA, Turkey – Insurgents in Iraq freed three Turkish hostages Tuesday, Turkey's (search) foreign minister said, and two other Turkish captives reportedly told their families they would soon be released.
The Turks were among dozens of people kidnapped in Iraq in recent months. Most have been freed, but several were slain — two by being beheaded.
A U.S. Marine, Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun (search), has also been abducted. The military on Tuesday changed his status from "missing" to "captured."
"Our citizens have been released," Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told state television. "We've struggled a lot for their release. We are glad to hear this news."
He spoke after the Arab television station Al-Jazeera (search) reported that the group responsible for beheading two other foreign hostages had announced it was freeing the three Turks.
Al-Jazeera broadcast a videotape showing the three Turkish hostages kneeling in front of three militants as one read a statement.
"For the sake of you, our brothers, and Muslims of the people of Turkey ... we will release these hostages and send them safely home," the statement said.
The abduction of the Turks was claimed by Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search), whose followers killed American Nicholas Berg last month and South Korean Kim Sun-Il last week.
Another group has claimed the kidnapping of Hassoun, the American Marine, and has threatened to behead him unless Iraqi prisoners are releaed. Hassoun was shown blindfolded with a sword brandished over his head in a video aired on Al-Jazeera television.
Hassoun, of Lebanese descent, was last seen about a week before the videotape was broadcast Sunday, the military said.
"The circumstances surrounding the Marine's absence initially indicated that he was missing," a statement by the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force said. "However, in light of what we have observed on the terrorists' video, we have classified him as captured."
The New York Times, citing a Marine officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity, reported on its Web site Tuesday night that Hassoun had been traumatized after seeing one of his sergeants killed by a mortar, and was trying to make his way back to Lebanon. The officer told the paper that Hassoun sought the help of Iraqis on the base, was betrayed by them, and was handed over the the extremists.
Hassoun's eldest brother, Mohammad, who lives in a Salt Lake City suburb, denied the report.
"To me it has no foundation. It's all wrong," Mohammad Hassoun said Tuesday night.
Capt. Amy Malugani, spokeswoman for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force from Camp Pendleton, declined to comment on the report Tuesday. She also would not say what steps the Marines were taking to rescue Hassoun.
On Monday, kidnappers in Iraq released a video that apparently showed militants killing a captive American soldier with a gunshot to the head. The captors identified their hostage as Spc. Matt Maupin, 20, of Batavia, Ohio, who has been missing since an attack on a fuel convoy on April 9. The U.S. military is analyzing the tape to determine whether the man was Maupin.
Two other Turkish hostages were allowed to call their families to say they would be freed within a week after their company agreed to stop working for the U.S. military in Iraq, Turkish television reported.
The fathers of the hostages told the private TV network their sons, Soner Sercali and Murat Kizil, were in good health. The two air conditioning repairmen were reported missing June 1.
Sercali's father Feridun said their employer, Kayteks, had agreed to stop doing business in Iraq.
Neither the company nor the families could be reached for comment.
Turkish officials, meanwhile, celebrated the reported release of their countrymen, but condemned taking hostages as against Islam.
"I cannot understand how people who belong to the same religion as me can do such a thing," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters. "Such actions do not belong in our religion."
Of the Turkish hostages, he said: "These are defenseless people who have gone to earn a living.... We are happy for their families."
Turkish media reports identified the three hostages as Mustafa Bal, Mehmet Bakir and Abdulselam Bakir, all Kurds from Turkey's Kurdish-dominated southeast. They worked for companies doing business with U.S. forces in Iraq.
"We've been praying for their release; we're very, very happy now," said Hudai Bakir, Mehmet's father. "I am anxious to see my son."
Foreign Minister Gul said calls for the hostages' freedom by labor unions and non-governmental organizations during an anti-U.S. rally in Istanbul on Sunday were instrumental in their release.