An old man showing his son's photo who is stranded in Iraq, while going to meet minister of external affairs Sushma Swaraj in New Delhi. Pardeep Pandit/HT
Iraq’s Sunni militants holding 39 Indians hostage for more than a month have slammed the doors shut on all negotiations in a big blow to efforts for securing their release.
This is the first time that there is no contact with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) militants after they snatched 40 construction workers, most of them from Punjab, in June from Mosul in northern Iraq. One of them managed to escape and is in Erbil in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan.
“We have been told to be patient. We continue to knock on doors but the clear indication is that ISIS does not want to negotiate their release right now,’’ a government official told HT. The Indian embassy officials were getting information about the captives through various channels, including aid agencies.
The Iraqi Red Crescent Society, a humanitarian agency that was keeping India informed about the workers, too, indicated that securing the release would be a ‘long haul.’
“They don’t want to engage in any talks yet,’’ Red Crescent president Yaseen Abbass told HT over the phone from Baghdad. Asked if the workers were safe, he said, “How do you assess safety? They are in the custody of terrorists.”
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The recent release and safe return of 46 Indian nurses from the ISIS stronghold of Tikrit in Iraq’s north had given some hope but the insurgents’ refusal to talk has the government worried. In fact, the militants had facilitated the nurses’ passage from Tikrit to Mosul and then to Erbil where an Indian delegation received them.
The splinter al Qaeda group, which now calls itself the Islamic State (IS) after declaring the creation of a “caliphate”, controls large swathes of northern and western Iraq.
“The case of male workers is different. The nurses were all women and not warriors,’’ Abbass said.
Male hostages, said officials in Delhi, were carrying arms and digging trenches for the insurgents. Indian officials in Baghdad and Delhi have been reaching out to anyone who can help but the efforts have drawn a blank so far.
While the government is in touch with several Gulf countries, the Red Crescent remains its eyes and ears on the ground in Mosul, where the workers are believed to be held.
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The Indian embassy officials have also handed over the photographs of the workers to the Red Crescent to ascertain if they remain in captivity.
But the agency said it was a difficult for them to identify the men ‘because the Indians were being held along with nationals of other countries as part of a larger group’, a government official told HT on condition of anonymity as he is not authorised to speak to the media.