India confirms 40 workers abducted in northern Iraq
NEW DELHI // India sent a veteran diplomat to Iraq on Wednesday following the kidnapping of 40 Indian workers in the northern city of Mosul, which was siezed by Islamist militants last week.
India’s ministry of external affairs confirmed on Wednesday evening that the construction workers had been abducted, but said the identity of the kidnappers was not certain and no ransom demands had been made so far.
Contact with the workers was lost while they were being evacuated by Iraqi authorities from Mosul, which was overrun by fighters from the Islamic State of Iran and the Levant (ISIL) on June 10.
New Delhi has sent Suresh Reddy, a former ambassador to Iraq, to Baghdad to assist the workers as well as more than 100 other Indians said to be trapped in the cities of Erbil and Tikrit. This includes 46 nurses – most of them from the southern state of Kerala – stranded in a Tikrit hospital.
“We are literally prisoners within the hospital premises,” Marina Jose, one of the nurses, told the NDTV news channel by phone on Tuesday. “All the military, police, everybody escaped from here. Only we are here.”
Ms Jose said the Red Cross had told the nurses that it could evacuate them only when the ground conditions became safer. ISIL militants seized Tikrit a week ago. After taking over an army base there, they allegedly executed more than a thousand members of Iraq’s security forces.
The Indian construction workers are the second group of foreign citizens to be reported kidnapped in Iraq. Turkey is currently negotiating for the release of 49 people captured by ISIL last week from the Turkish consulate in Mosul, as well as 31 truck drivers held by the militants.
India’s external affairs ministry said it learned the workers had been abducted “through international agencies”, but none knew of their whereabouts.
Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said India was “in touch with the United Nations, the International Red Cross, the Red Crescent and with the Iraqi government”.
The ministry has set up a 24-hour control centre to deal with the first overseas crisis facing the Narendra Modi’s government since he was sworn in as prime minister last month.
Mr Akbaruddin said India had no plans to shut its Baghdad mission during Iraq’s current crisis. “We are not fair-weather friends. We will not shut down the embassy.”
Kabir Taneja, a Middle East scholar at the Takshashila Institution, a Bengaluru-based think tank, cautioned that information on the number of trapped Indians and their welfare was “still sketchy”.
“The ISIL is capable of using any citizens of any nationality for extortion,” Mr Taneja told The National. “They are a terror organisation living ‘off the land’, so to speak. Having said that, it’s crucial to allow information to filter through the government first, before speculation runs amok.”
Roughly 12,000 Indians live in Iraq, mostly as migrant workers. India has experience in evacuating its citizens from conflict areas – as in the first Gulf War, or the 2011 Libyan uprising. But getting 12,000 people out of a country in which the government is fast losing control will be “no easy feat”, Mr Taneja noted.
“The Indian air force has said that its aircraft are ready,” he said. “However, I believe it’s the Indian navy that should remain on highest alert for that region.”
One avenue of action might involve a grouping of Asian countries that rely on Iraqi oil – such as China, India, Japan and South Korea – to pressure Baghdad to expedite evacuations of their citizens.
“This lack of Asian grouping minimises every country’s chance of applying enough diplomatic pressure on anyone to bring about any significant diplomatic and political movement,” Mr Taneja said.
Updated: June 18, 2014 04:00 AM