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Despair after flicker of hostage freedom

Aug 1: In Una, the dancing would not stop nor the handing-out of sweets — people simply refused to accept the bad news.

Celebrations had started in Ropar, too, but reality caught up shortly with Sukhdev Singh’s family and friends who had gathered in hundreds on the news that the three Indian truck drivers kidnapped in Iraq had been released.

The picture of reality that came out of Iraq was a mass of confusion: a Kenyan minister said all the seven hostages — Antaryami and Tilak Raj, from Una in Himachal Pradesh, are the two other Indians, besides three Kenyans and one Egyptian — had been released.

“The (Kenyan foreign ministry)... has succeeded in the release of the three Kenyans,” foreign minister Chirau Ali Mwakwere said in Nairobi.

He said all seven were at the Egyptian embassy in Baghdad. “They will in the next few hours be taken to Kuwait where they will be received by our ambassador to Saudi Arabia and his team that is already there.”

The Indian government, however, said it had received no confirmation. “Neither our embassy in Baghdad nor our embassy in Kuwait has been able to confirm this,” E. Ahmed, the minister of state for external affairs, said.

Soon after, an Egyptian official in Baghdad denied that any hostages were safely inside his country’s embassy: “All of this is not true and we are still making contacts to secure the release of the hostages.... We are hopeful of a positive outcome.”

“We had begun celebrating Sukhdev’s second birth. We had even sent for a dholwala (drummer) to dance,” said Jaswinder, Sukhdev’s sister, at Makrauna Kalan in Punjab’s Ropar district.

Gloom returned when the Kuwaiti firm that employs the seven truck drivers said they were still being held hostage. “They have not been released…. We are still negotiating,” Rana Abu Zaneih, a spokeswoman for Kuwait and Gulf Link Transport Company, said.

The Kenyan minister, who had announced freedom, had “misunderstood” the issue, she said, but expressed the hope that the hostages would be set free in due course.

Hisham al-Dulami, the chief Iraqi negotiator in the hostage standoff, said no deal had been struck with the kidnappers, the Holders of the Black Banner. “They are not released, negotiations are still going on,” he said.

“There’s no way they could be released. On the contrary, there are some complications with the negotiations, but we’re still hopeful.”

Such was the confusion, however, that Reuters reported Dulami having given it a copy of the letter where the kidnappers asked the mediator to withdraw from the talks because they were not satisfied with the response of the Kuwaiti employer.

On the basis of information provided by the Indian embassy in Baghdad, Ahmed said: “We expect the negotiations to resume tomorrow.”

Earlier, the militants had extended a deadline to kill one of the hostages until Sunday evening.

The deadline was first set for 20.30 IST on Friday but was considered extended by 24 hours after it passed with no word from the kidnappers. The latest extension takes it to 20.30 IST Sunday.

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