Indian workers escape from US army camp in Iraq

Published on May 06, 2004 06:15 PM IST

Four Indians said on Wednesday they were held against their will by US troops in Iraq to do menial work in an army camp amid insurgent attacks. The US embassy said it was investigating the report.

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PTI | ByAssociated Press, Cochin (kerala)

Four Indians said on Wednesday they were held against their will by US troops in Iraq to do menial work in an army camp amid insurgent attacks.

The US embassy said it was investigating the report. Aliyarkunj Faisal, Abdul Aziz Shahjehan, Haniffa Mansool and Hameed Abdul Hafiz said they signed up in August with a recruiting agency to work for a caterer in Kuwait. When they reached the Kuwait airport, a US soldier ordered them to board a bus that took them to a base near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, they said.

"There were some 20 Indians in the bus. Once we knew that we were inside Iraq, we protested," Faisal said. "But the Americans told us that they had paid a Kuwait agency $1,000 for each man and therefore it was a must that we work for them."

Shahjehan said the camp, which he could not name, often was the target of missile attacks by Iraqi fighters.

"Every time the camp was attacked, we took shelter in a bunker. The fear of seeing so many bomb explosions still haunts me," he said, adding that the US army also gave them training on how to remain alert and get into bunkers.

Shahjehan said the four — all Muslims — were forced to do menial jobs, including washing clothes.

"When I refused to work and told an officer that I wanted to go back, he beat me up," Shahjehan said.

Faisal said the men were promised $890 a month in Kuwait but instead made $200 from the US army in Iraq.

"It was a pitiful life. We lost all our money," he said. Faisal said 16 Indians got together and escaped April 15 by paying $20 to an Iraqi truck driver, who took them to Baghdad. He said the Indian High Commission there helped them fly to Amman, Jordan, and then back to Mumbai.

"I shudder at the thought that I lived amid missile attacks and gun fighting for months," said Faisal, 26, who, along with the three others, returned on Monday to their village of Velichakala, 150 kilometres south of Cochin. The Indian government has demanded an explanation from Washington.

Asked about the allegations, US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington, "Obviously, we take all such reports seriously. We will do our best to find out the facts of the matter."

David Kennedy, spokesman for the US embassy in New Delhi, said that officials were investigating.

"We have seen the reports and are looking into them. We take all reports of abuse seriously and all allegations of mistreatment are investigated," Kennedy said. "We are committed to treating all persons under coalition authority with dignity, respect and humanity."

The allegations by the Indians come on top of international condemnation of the treatment of Iraqi prisoners by the US military.

Faisal said the four men paid $1,750 each to a travel agent, who arranged the Kuwait job through a recruiting agency in Mumbai. The Indians declined to identify the recruiting agency, saying they have been threatened since their return.

Many poor, unemployed Indians gather up their life savings or borrow large sums to try to secure jobs in Gulf countries. Some 3.5 million Indians are employed in the Gulf.

India has been a major supplier of manpower for low-level jobs with the US military forces in Kuwait and Iraq. Travel agencies have recruited military support staff, such as chefs, kitchen workers, accountants and drivers for US military forces. India, which opposed the war in Iraq, banned the recruitment of Indians for jobs in Iraq on April 15 after the security situation there began deteriorating.

The Indian government has ordered an investigation into private agencies that reportedly have illegally sent 1,500 retired Indian soldiers to Iraq.

Before the ban came into force, some Indian companies' requests to employ 360 retired soldiers to protect their offices in Iraq were granted, External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha told PTI.

The head of Kerala state's Department of Non-Resident Development Initiative said it is investigating because so many Indians in the Gulf come from Kerala.

"We have reports that many Indian, most of them from Kerala, are staying and working in areas of intense fighting between the US-led troops and Iraqi civilians," Satish Namboodiripad said. "We want their immediate, safe return."

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