During her four-hour meeting with visiting Russian deputy foreign minister Dmitry O Rogozin on Wednesday, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj had to step out a couple of times — to take phone calls.
The callers were anxious family members from Punjab of the men kidnapped in northern Iraqi city of Mosul that has been overrun by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants.
Read: 40 Indian workers abducted; no ransom call so far
The ministry of external affairs evening confirmed that 40 Indian construction workers, most of them from Punjab, had been abducted, presenting the barely-month-old government its biggest foreign policy test.
The ministry got more than 60 calls during the day. Relatives of nurses stranded in Tikrit, which, too, is under the control of ISIS, and Indians working in other parts of Iraq, including Najaf, wanted help.
The government has activated all possible channels of communications to deal with the hostage situation. “It is a civil-war situation we have to deal with. The lives of many nationals, including ours, are in danger. We are hoping for the best and dealing with anyone who can help us,” said a government official.
But handling a crisis like this is a tough task. With the fighting spreading, even evacuating people by road is not an option. Rebels have seized swathes of territory.
Watch: '40 Indian construction workers kidnapped in Iraq'
The Iraqi government’s writ doesn’t run in areas like Mosul or Tikrit. There is little New Delhi can hope to achieve through government channels.
And, then there are individual preferences. For instance, most of the 46 Indian nurses in Tikrit, the home town of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, have told the Indian mission that they would like to stay put or moved to other safer Iraqi towns unless “the embassy tells us that we must go”. Only 14 want to leave the country which the UN warned is on the verge of breaking up.
Many of them are on a year’s contract and have completed four months on the job, waiting for their first salaries. They told the Indian mission that like most of the 85 Indian nurses recruited by the Iraqi government, they, too, would like to work in safer areas, sources told HT.
What will worry the government is that the first overseas abduction on its watch — of Alexus Prem Kumar, an aid-worker in Herat, Afghanistan — remains unresolved.
Full coverage: Iraq on the brink