Turkish hostages released by militants in Iraq

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The Independent Online

Three Turkish hostages have been released by militants in Iraq, who had earlier threatened to behead them, the foreign minister said today.

Three Turkish hostages have been released by militants in Iraq, who had earlier threatened to behead them, the foreign minister said today.

"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."

His comments came after a report on Al-Jazeera television said an extremist group responsible for beheading two other foreign hostages had announced it was releasing the three Turks "for the sake of their Muslim brothers."

The Arab satellite station broadcast a videotape showing the three Turkish hostages, believed to have been contractors, kneeling in front of three members of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad movement, as one of the militants 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.

Gul said calls for their release by labour unions and non-governmental organisations during an anti-US rally in Istanbul on Sunday were instrumental in their release.

The kidnappers had called for large demonstrations in Turkey against the war and US President George W. Bush, who is attending a NATO summit in Istanbul.

During the rally, broadcast by some Arab television stations, labour union leaders strongly criticised the occupation of Iraq and praised the friendship with the Iraqi people. More than 40,000 people attended the demonstration.

"I think NGOs and labour unions have played an effective role in their release. So, I have to say 'thank you' to them," Gul said.

Two other Turkish hostages held by militants in Iraq were allowed to call their families to say they would be freed within a week after their company agreed to kidnappers' demands to stop working as a contractor for the US military in Iraq, CNN-Turk television reported.

The fathers of the two hostages said in phone interviews today with the private network that the two hostages - Soner Sercali, an air conditioning repairman, and his co-worker Murat Kizil - were in good health. They have been reported missing since June 1.

Sercali's father Feridun said their company, Kayteks, had agreed to stop doing business in Iraq.

Neither the company nor the families could be reached for comment today.

The Turkish news agency Ihlas yesterday released a photograph of the two hostages showing them squatting in front of five masked men armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The agency said its photographer took the picture at an unspecified location in Iraq.

Thousands of Turks work as truck drivers or contractors in Iraq. The kidnapped Turks were accused of working for the US occupiers.