Militants Detain 48, including Turkish Consul and Seize Tikrit as Iraq Forces Repel Assault on Samarra

Militants stormed the Turkish consulate in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Wednesday and kidnapped 48 people including the head of the mission, a Turkish government official said.

"Forty-eight Turks including the consul, staff members, guards and three children were abducted," the official told Agence France Presse, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official said the diplomats were taken from the consulate building to the headquarters of the powerful jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Mosul.

"All are doing well," the official said, without elaborating.

The kidnappings come as jihadists spearheaded by ISIL have overrun swathes of Iraq including Mosul, in a spectacular blow to the Shiite-led government.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan held an emergency meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay and spy chief Hakan Fidan to discuss security measures and how to secure the release of those kidnapped.

"All options are on the table including the evacuation of the consulate in Mosul," the official said.

Ankara also informed its NATO allies of the situation but stopped short from requesting any help, said a source after the meeting in Brussels.

Turkey pledged to retaliate if its 48 abducted citizens are harmed.

"All those involved should know that if our citizens are harmed in any way, they will be the subject of harsh reprisals," Turkish media quoted Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu as saying at the United Nations in New York.

Davutoglu cut short a trip in New York, cancelling several meetings at the U.N. to head back to Turkey, a ministry official said.

The kidnappings come amid growing concern in Ankara over the rise of radical Islamist groups across the border in Syria.

Last month Turkey added the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaida's franchise in Syria which is accused of committing war crimes against civilians, to a list of terrorist organizations.

Davutoglu said his ministry had sent order to evacuate the consulate two days ago but were informed that it was more dangerous for the staff to leave because of security concerns.

"Right now, our priority is to bring our citizens back to the country alive, which is more important than unveiling an initiative of some kind," Davutoglu was quoted as saying without elaborating.

"All are doing well," he said, after canceling several meetings at the United Nations to head back to Turkey.

Turkey, which backs the uprising against President Bashar Assad, has repeatedly denied claims that it is providing shelter or backing al-Qaida linked groups in Syria.

The Mosul consulate said Tuesday that militants from ISIL, a radical jihadist group operating in Iraq and Syria, had seized 28 Turkish truck drivers.

Militants also took control of the Iraqi city of Tikrit and freed hundreds of prisoners, police said, the second provincial capital to fall in two days.

"All of Tikrit is in the hands of the militants," a police colonel said of the Salaheddin provincial capital, which lies roughly half way between Baghdad and Iraq's second city Mosul which fell on Tuesday.

A police brigadier general said that the militants attacked from the north, west and south of the city, and that they were from powerful jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

A police major said the militants had freed some 300 inmates from a prison in the city.

Meanwhile, Iraqi security forces repelled an assault by militants on the highly sensitive city of Samarra, witnesses said.

Samarra is home to a revered Shiite shrine that was bombed in 2006, sparking a sectarian conflict between Iraq's Shiite majority and Sunni Arab minority that left tens of thousands dead.

It lies just 110 kilometers (70 miles) north of Baghdad on the main highway from the country's second city Mosul, which jihadists seized on Tuesday.

Witnesses said militants arrived in trucks mounted with machineguns, and a policeman said his unit was battling them at the northwest entrance to Samarra.

Iraqiya state television reported that security forces carried out air strikes against them, though it was unclear whether helicopters or planes were used.

Witnesses later said the clashes ended without the militants entering the city.

It was not immediately clear what became of the attackers, but it was a local victory for security forces that have largely been swept aside by a major offensive spearheaded by jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group.

As many as half a million Iraqis fled their homes as a result of the jihadist expansion, as the militiamen tightened their grip beyond second city Mosul, and vowed an even broader offensive.

In a spectacular blow to the Shiite-led government, the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and their allies on Tuesday seized Mosul and surrounding Nineveh province as well as a string of other northern towns.

And on Wednesday ISIL declared on Twitter that it was in "complete control" of all routes in and out of Nineveh, and promised it would "not stop this series of blessed invasions".

Members of the jihadist group also seized the Turkish consulate in Mosul and kidnapped the head of the diplomatic mission along with 24 staff, police said.

"ISIL members managed to kidnap the Turkish consul and 24 of his guards and assistants," the officer said.

The colonel said he had spoken with one of the kidnappers, who said those held "are safe with us," and will be moved to a "safer place".

Elsewhere, they executed 15 security personnel in Kirkuk province and tried to take the oil pipeline hub of Baiji, before withdrawing when troop reinforcements arrived, officials said.

The jihadist's surprise advance poses significant challenges to Baghdad, with a risk consultancy saying they would be bolstered by cash from Mosul's banks, hardware from military bases and hundreds of men they freed from prison.

It also sparked a massive exodus of civilians, with families piling into cars that flooded security checkpoints outside the northern city normally home to two million people.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has responded by asking parliament to declare emergency rule and announcing citizens would be armed to fight them, while the United States warned ISIL threatened the entire region.

On Wednesday, gunmen in military uniforms and all-black clothing guarded government buildings and banks in Mosul, said witnesses reached by telephone from Bashiqa, a town to the east.

They called over loudspeakers for government employees to go back to work.

"I did not open the door of the shop since last Thursday because of the security conditions," said Abu Ahmed, a 30-year-old shopkeeper.

The International Organization for Migration said its sources in Mosul estimated the violence leading up to the jihadists' takeover "displaced over 500,000 people in and around the city".

The violence "has resulted in a high number of casualties among civilians," the IOM said, adding fighting restricted access to four hospitals.

"Some mosques have been converted to clinics to treat casualties," it said.

Witnesses reported that dozens of families were still fleeing, but Abu Ahmed said: "I will remain in Mosul. This is my city in any case, and the city is calm now."

Bassam Mohammed, a 25-year-old student, said he too would stay.

"But I am afraid about freedoms, and I am especially afraid that they will impose new laws on us," he said.

Known for its ruthless tactics and suicide bombers, ISIL is arguably the most capable force fighting President Bashar Assad inside Syria as well as the most powerful militant group in Iraq.

The takeover of Mosul prompted the United States to voice deep concern about the "extremely serious" situation and warn that ISIL poses "a threat to the entire region".

ISIL is led by the shadowy Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and backed by thousands of Islamist fighters in Syria and Iraq, many of them Westerners, and it appears to be surpassing Al-Qaida as the world's most dangerous jihadist group.

On Wednesday, the Syrian government said it was ready to help Baghdad in its fight against "terrorism", while the rebel Free Syrian Army called for support from Arab states for its own battle against ISIL in Syria.

The New York-based Eurasia Group consultancy said the jihadist offensive would have limited impact on Iraq's oil exports, the majority of which are from the mainly Shiite south.

"ISIL will use cash reserves from Mosul's banks, military equipment from seized military and police bases, and the release of 2,500 fighters from local jails to bolster its military and financial capacity," said Ayham Kamel, its Middle East and north Africa director.

"We do not anticipate a sharp deterioration in the security environment in these more stable (southern) provinces that would materially impact Iraq's oil export volumes," he said.

Iraq, which boasts among the highest reserves of oil and gas in the world, produces about 3.5 million barrels of oil per day, with exports in February reaching 2.8 million bpd, the highest level in a quarter of a century.

A senior government official said "the oil sector is not affected and will not be affected by what is happening, because most of the facilities are in central and south Iraq."

But he warned that would change if the militants were to make a new, successful assault on Baiji, a key hub on the export pipeline from the northern oil fields around Kirkuk to Turkey.

Source: Agence France Presse

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