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Villagers join families in prayer
- Father of a hostage heads to Delhi with neighbours of another to meet PM & Kalam

Una (Himachal Pradesh), July 23: Hundreds of villagers gathered at the houses of the three Indians taken hostage in Iraq on Wednesday to pray for their release.

Antaryami, Tilak Raj and Sukhdev Singh were captured two days ago along with four other truck drivers belonging to Kenya and Egypt by the Holders of the Black Banner. The militant group threatened to execute one hostage every 72 hours if their Kuwaiti employer does not leave Iraq.

Antaryami, 33, and Tilak Raj hail from Himachal Pradesh’s Una district and Sukhdev, 26, from Punjab’s Ropar district. Antaryami belongs to Upper Dehla village on the Chandigarh-Dharamsala highway and Tilak Raj hails from Dharampur village, about 30 km away.

Neighbours and residents of villages adjoining those of the Himachal hostages kept dropping by to meet their relatives after news of their capture filtered across.

“Nothing can be done except to pray to god for the safe release of the innocent hostages. We’re helpless,” said a villager in Upper Dehla who was among hundreds trying to console 55-year-old Bhago Devi, Antaryami’s mother, and Kusumlata, 21, his wife. He has an 11-month-old daughter.

Both women were in tears, with Bhago Devi remonstrating: “I had repeatedly asked you not to go abroad for a job. But you did not listen to your poor mother. What will I do if anything happens to you.” Antaryami’s eldest brother died four years ago.

His father Ram Murti Bains, 60, a retired Punjab civil servant, has headed to Delhi with 15 others, including some of Tilak Raj’s neighbours, to urge Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other senior leaders to save the hostages. They also hope to meet President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.

Alleging that only a junior government official has met the family so far, Bains urged the Centre to meet the captors’ demands and ensure his son’s safe release.

“Neither any politician, including the (Himachal) chief minister (Veerbhadra Singh) nor the company for which my son worked has got in touch with us so far. We are solely dependent on the media for all information,” he added.

The air is thick with gloom at the house of Tilak Raj, where his wife Pramila Devi has been refusing to eat. Their two daughters and son do not follow everything that is happening but the pain is writ large on their faces.

A team of doctors visited Dharampur village today to examine Pramila. “She is facing psychological problems and had not eaten anything from last night. She was given medicines and is all right now,” Gurcharan Singh , chief medical officer of Una, said.

Una deputy superintendent of police Anupam Sharma and sub-divisional magistrate Sanjay Sharma have visited the families. “We’re in constant touch with the families and trying our best to console them,” Anupam Sharma said. The deputy commissioner and the superintendent of police in the district are on leave.

Pradeep Soni, the agent who managed visas for the Himachal hostages, has disappeared from Nangal, Punjab. He is known to arrange visas and worked as an agent for an Oman placement agency; Soni has recruited a number of Indians to work in Kuwait. The abducted trio was hired as truck drivers with the Gulf Trosseing Company, a sister concern of Kuwait and Gulf Link Transport Company, for whom they were working when they were captured.

Soni reportedly made a lot of money from the hostages for arranging their visas and getting them jobs. Pramila said Tilak Raj paid the agent Rs 70,000. Antaryami also had to put up a big sum of money.

Sukhdev, who belongs to Makrauna Kalan village in Punjab’s Ropar district, sold an acre of land for the job, leaving his family just one acre for cultivation.

Asked if Una police will take any action against Soni, Anupam Sharma said the former’s office falls under the jurisdiction of Punjab police.

Speaking about the hostage crisis, chief minister Singh said: “No purpose would be served by taking Indians hostage for the country has always stood by Iraq. I request the Centre to use all diplomatic channels to ensure the hostages’ safe release.”

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