Turkey on Tuesday indicated that dozens of Turkish hostages abducted by Islamic State (IS) insurgents in Iraq may have been freed in exchange for the release of IS militants held by Syrian rebels.
Citing security sources, the Hurriyet daily said that Syrian rebels released 50 members of IS, including the family of a key radical leader, in exchange for the release of Turkish hostages.
The 46 Turks, including Turkey's consul, children and special forces soldiers abducted by IS jihadists from its consulate in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in June, returned home Saturday to nationwide jubilation after more than three months in captivity.
Speaking at an event in New York, where he is attending the UN General Assembly, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not explicitly confirm that a swap took place but hinted it had helped secure the release of the Turks.
"Some said a swap was made. A swap is done when necessary," Erdogan was quoted as saying at the Council of Foreign Relations by the Dogan news agency.
"It requires a distinct skill to prepare for that. This has been achieved through such steps."
He pointed to Israel, which had set free "1,500 (Palestinian) prisoners for one (Israeli) hostage... So you see, it is possible."
A government official in Ankara told AFP on condition of anonymity that "we neither confirm nor deny a swap deal".
The official declined to comment on the details of the top-secret operation which was "entirely under the control of the National Intelligence Organisation" (MIT), Turkey's spy agency.
- '50 militants released' -
The family of IS leader Haji Bakr -- who was killed in Aleppo in January after his group clashed with a unit of the Free Syrian Army -- were among those released by the Syrian rebels, Hurriyet said.
Liwa al-Tawhid, an armed Syrian rebel group that split from the Free Syrian Army fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad, agreed to free members of IS, also known as ISIL or ISIS, after talks, according to the report.
The rebels released the 50 IS captives near Aleppo in return for the release of Turkish hostages on the Syrian border at Akcakale, Hurriyet said.
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The Turkish hostages reached Syria's northern province of Raqqa on Friday. But their captors waited until 5:00 am Saturday for the Syrian group rebels to release the IS captives, Hurriyet said.
Ankara has been accused by some analysts of helping to fuel the rise of IS jihadists with its support of Islamist rebels fighting Assad, but has vehemently denied backing their brutal campaign.
The jihadists now control swathes of Iraq and northern Syria and are now pushing on Kurdish-dominated areas in Syria, prompting a huge influx of refugees into Turkey.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu late Tuesday made a "surprise" visit to MIT headquarters in Ankara to thank the service for its role in the release, Turkish media said, without giving further details.
-'No policy change'-
Turkey has so far refused to become militarily involved in the US-led operation against IS insurgents so as not to endanger the lives of the hostages.
But despite their release, Turkey appears keen to stick to its position of keeping a low profile in the anti-IS fight, even as the US expands its air strikes into Syria.
"The issue of hostages was one of our concerns. But not the only one," the Turkish official told AFP.
"Turkey is the only country that has a border with ISIL. We are a direct target," the source said.
"No policy has changed 180 degrees," the official said, adding Erdogan would have diplomatic contacts on the sidelines of the annual UN general assembly meetings in New York.
The United States -- which insisted it understood Turkey's sensitivities in not joining the military campaign -- now expects Ankara to step up its cooperation after the release of its citizens.
Turkey "first needed to deal with their hostage situation," US Secretary of State John Kerry told MSNBC on Monday. "Now the proof will be in the pudding."
Davutoglu said Ankara would not allow itself to be put under any pressure, saying: "Turkey is not a country which can be subjected to a test."