Foreign Ministry vehemently denies bargain with jihadists over Turkish territory
ANKARATurkey’s Foreign Ministry has categorically denied a report that Ankara has agreed to hand over the tomb of Süleyman Shah, a speck of Turkish territory inside Syria, to jihadists in return for the release of 49 Turkish nationals who they have been keeping hostage since early June.
“The groundless claims are an example of huge irresponsibility,” the Foreign Ministry said in a written press statement released on Aug. 21, the day when daily newspaper Taraf said the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has been responsible for atrocities across northern Iraq and Syria and which recently renamed itself the Islamic State (IS), asked Turkey to withdraw its troops protecting the tomb in return for the hostages’ release.
“The exploitation of issues such as national security and safety of our citizens is not a behavior which can be accepted in any way and which can be regarded within the framework of press freedom,” the ministry said.
In its report which did not cite any sources, the daily said the militants had given a three-week deadline to Ankara to consider the offer and abandon the tomb. In the event that Ankara fails to vacate the tomb, the militants said they would attack the structure, although the report did not say whether the offer was conveyed to the Turkish side.
“On such a sensitive matter, [media organs] should act in line with journalistic and press ethics; the misleading of the public with groundless, speculative and irresponsible publications should be meticulously avoided. We call on all media organizations to display the required sensitivity on this matter and call on our public not to give credit to these kinds of publications,” the ministry said, while concluding the statement by noting that all institutions had been exerting coordinated efforts for the “safe and sound return of the staff of the Mosul Consulate General as soon as possible.”
According to Taraf’s report, the Turkish government has been currently reviewing the option and seeking a formula for an explanation to the public. The government, having given the green light to the bargaining, has already instructed the General Staff while not divulging ISIL’s involvement to evacuate the tomb for security reasons, Taraf said. The General Staff has laid the groundwork for an evacuation, but the withdrawal has yet to begin, the daily added. At the time of the planned evacuation, the public would be informed that the troops were being withdrawn in order to prevent a potential clash with militants there, Taraf said.
Jihadist militants kidnapped 49 people from the Turkish Consulate-General in Mosul on June 11, including 46 Turkish nationals. The hostages were moved to another location in the city in early July, according to Turkish diplomats. Officials have not dismissed the possibility that ISIL is holding the Turkish citizens as “human shields,” as the group is said to have not so far presented any specific demands for their release.
The tomb of Süleyman Şah is located in the governorate of Aleppo, and sits 25 kilometers from the Turkey-Syria border. It remains under Turkish sovereignty under a 1921 treaty signed between Turkey and France, which was then the colonial power in Syria. The agreement was renewed after Syria gained independence in 1936.
Within days after the abduction in Mosul, in line with government officials’ statement that the media should not report on the abduction in a way which could provoke the militants, a local court in Ankara issued a June 16 gag order ruling that “all kinds of print, visual and Internet media are banned from writing and commenting on the situation” until the Turkish citizens in the hands of ISIL are safely rescued. On June 17, the Turkish media watchdog, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), delivered the court’s decision to all media executives, saying the ban was effective immediately.