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Mediator hints at hostage firm breakthrough

July 31: An Iraqi mediator trying to win the release of seven kidnapped foreign truck drivers today said their Kuwaiti employer was ready to compensate victims of US military action in Falluja and pull out of Iraq to save their lives.

Delhi, too, joined in the efforts, deputing Talmiz Ahmad, its ambassador in Oman, to assist in efforts to free the three Indians who were taken hostage along with three Kenyans and one Egyptian 10 days ago.

Tribal leader Sheikh Hisham al-Dulami said though the company had little influence over the Kuwait or US governments, it has offered to compensate Iraqi victims of American attacks in restive Falluja, west of Baghdad, to meet one demand of the kidnappers.

The firm, however, told Dulami that another demand — release of Iraqi prisoners in Kuwait — was impossible for a private company to achieve.

“The company has shown its willingness to help 250 victims of genocide in Falluja,” Dulami said after talks with Mehdi Saleh, an Iraqi representative of the Kuwait and Gulf Link Transport Company in Baghdad.

“So far the outcome is positive. We have agreed on many issues, but we still need time. The company said it was ready to help the Iraqi people,” he said, adding that he expected a deal early on Sunday.

Dulami said he was asking for patience from the kidnappers, who had threatened to start executing the hostages by 20.30 (IST) today if their demands were not met.

On Thursday, the kidnappers — who call themselves Holders of the Black Banner — issued a videotape showing one of the Indian hostages, Antaryami, with a gun pointed at his head.

In Delhi, sources said the Oman envoy, who has already left for Jordan, would need to get an Iraqi visa before he can travel to Baghdad. Though instructions have been sent to the Indian mission in Jordan, indications are Ahmad would probably reach the Iraqi capital tomorrow afternoon.

Minister of state for external affairs E. Ahmed, who chaired a meeting of the crisis management group this morning, said the diplomat will “assist in our efforts to seek the early and safe release of our nationals and their return home”.

Asked if there was any word on further extension of the deadline, the minister said: “Talks are going on. I have no other information. We are in constant contact.”

Although Ahmad, who has worked in the Gulf and the Arab world for several years, is well versed in Arabic, he would be assisted by Zikrur Rahman, an Arabic speaker who has been on key assignments as official translator. The two had till recently worked closely when Ahmad was ambassador in Saudi Arabia.

Rahman, has old links with Calcutta, where he played football for Mohammedan Sporting Club in the 1960s and 1970s.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who returned from Bangkok tonight, said negotiations were still going on.

“Every effort is being made to secure the release of these unfortunate hostages,” he added.

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