New Delhi: India said Wednesday that 40 Indians working for a Turkish construction company have been abducted from violence-hit Iraq.
The external affairs ministry did not say who had seized the workers although earlier media reports blamed it on the Sunni insurgents who have seized key cities in Iraq.
A ministry spokesman said the workers mostly belonged to the country’s northern states such as Punjab and worked for Tariq Noor al Huda company.
He said no ransom call had been received and the Iraq Red Crescent had “indicated to us that they were kidnapped”. He said their current location was not known.
As the situation in Iraq worsened, the Indian government had yesterday called in the Iraqi envoy in New Delhi to discuss ways of helping Indian nationals trapped in the affected areas of Mosul and Tikrit and also held a crisis management meeting.
The external affairs ministry Tuesday evening announced the setting up of a 24-hour control room to provide information to all concerned. The Indian embassy in Baghdad has also set up a 24-hour helpline.
There are 46 Indian nurses – most of them from Kerala – stranded in Tikrit and 41 construction workers are in Mosul.
Al Qaeda-linked Sunni militants have overrun large swathes of area in northern Iraq and taken over Mosul and Tikrit, killing hundreds of Shia troops.
On Tuesday, Baquba – capital of Diyala province, 60 km from Baghdad – saw Sunni militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) take control of several districts before government troops and allied Shia militia regained control, according to reports.
The US and Iran are actively considering ways to help the Iraqi government tackle the situation, including through military air strikes.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has been monitoring and reviewing the situation on a regular basis and in accordance with her instructions, the Indian embassy in Baghdad is providing updated reports on the Indian nationals in the affected areas, said ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin.
Anil Wadhwa, secretary (East) in the ministry, met Iraqi Ambassador Ahmed Derwari in South Block Tuesday.
Wadhwa also chaired a crisis management meeting on the Iraq situation to discuss possible ways to provide ground level help to the Indians there, said the spokesperson.
The Indian government is also keeping its options open for possible evacuation if the situation demands, a source added.
According to R. Dayakar, who retired as Indian ambassador in Iraq, while the situation in Iraq is cause for “enormous anxiety”, the need of the hour is to “keep cool” and let the Indian embassy in Baghdad handle the affairs.
“The Indian mission is doing the best job it can,” he said.
Dayakar, who was envoy for eight years in two stints, said the areas that have been taken over by the Sunni militants do not have a large Indian populace. Most of the Indians in Iraq are in Basra and Kurdistan, which are relatively safer places.
What makes providing safety to the Indians in Tikrit difficult is that there is no flight service from the city to Baghdad.
“The only way to the Iraqi capital is over land. There are chances of encountering jihadists at the fake check points they set up on the road,” Dayakar told IANS.
The former envoy, who was also joint secretary in charge of the Gulf in the ministry, said the fighting in Iraq is mainly political and, barring an incident where they took the Turkish envoy hostage, they have not harmed foreigners so far.
He also said the jihadists have not so far indulged in any kidnapping incidents either.
“The foreigners are not the targets (of the jihadists),” he said.
Dayakar said the Iraqi Red Crescent went and looked up the Indian nurses in Tikrit at the request of the Indian government.
Besides the Indian nationals, there are workers from the Philippines, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal working in the affected areas.
There are hundreds of Bangladeshi blue-collar workers in Iraq, including in Mosul and Tikrit, following an agreement between the two countries.
However, the 46 nurses from Kerala working in Iraq’s Tikrit city have been struck a double blow as not only have they been affected by the strife there, but their salaries have also been cut drastically.
A nurse told IANS over phone from Tikrit that 46 nurses were working at a government hospital in Tikrit.
“Thirty of them reached here last August, while 16 came this February. They were all promised a monthly salary of $750. But today (Tuesday), a new manager told us that the government that hired us has changed and now the new government can only pay $200,” said the nurse, whose identity has been withheld.
She said the nurses want to return home at the earliest, and were in touch with the Indian embassy in Iraq and the Red Crescent and asked them for jobs in other hospitals.
“We are all praying that something works out,” she said.
On Monday, India voiced its strong condemnation of attacks by terrorist outfits in Iraq, saying that the takeover of cities such as Mosul and Tikrit was a direct threat to security and territorial integrity of the West Asian country.
The external affairs ministry control room nos are: +91 11 2301 2113, +91 11 2301 7905, +91 11 2301 4104. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition, the Indian embassy in Baghdad has set up a 24-hour helpline which can be accessed for information or assistance. The numbers are:
Tel. No. +964 770 444 4899 (Mobile)
Tel. No. +964 770 484 3247 (Mobile)