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Hostage talks hit hurdle after fresh demand

Aug. 8: The Kuwaiti employer of three Indians held hostage in Iraq said tonight it was withdrawing from talks to secure their release, clouding hopes and belying an unusual offer by India’s best known face abroad to save the lives of the captives.

“We have pulled out of the negotiations,” Rana Abu-Zaineh, spokesperson for Kuwait and Gulf Link Transport Co, said.

The company has been negotiating with officials in Iraq and a tribal chief to secure the release of Antaryami, Tilak Raj and Sukhdev Singh, besides three Kenyans and an Egyptian driver kidnapped on July 21.

The spokesperson did not explain why the company was pulling out of the talks but relations between KGL and an Iraqi negotiator, Sheikh Hisham al-Dulami, have been tense recently over his involvement in negotiations to secure the men’s release.

The Indian government, which had yesterday said the “way had been cleared” for the release of the hostages toned down expectations. The government tonight said it may take “some time” to get a response from the abductors.

“From a TV interview given a short while ago, we understand that Sheikh Dulami is still awaiting a response from the captors. This may take some time. We must be patient,” external affairs minister K. Natwar Singh told reporters after a marathon meeting of the crisis management group in New Delhi.

“This may take some time. We must be patient. We continue to encourage both Sheikh Dulami and the company to stay engaged and bring this ordeal for the hostages and their anxious families to an early and happy conclusion,” Singh added.

Asked about reports that KGL has pulled out of the talks, minister of state for external affairs E. Ahmed said: “I don’t have that information.”

The talks seemed to have hit a roadblock earlier in the day when the abductors made a last-minute fresh demand, described as “pressure tactics” by the Kuwaiti company.

“Till last night, everything was going fine. We were expecting to receive the hostages but the abductors changed their mind at the last minute and put in a new demand,” the KGL spokesperson said.

A dramatic element was added with Rana saying that Dulami wants Amitabh Bachchan or actress of yesteryears Asha Parekh to make an appeal to the abductors.

Both offered to help almost immediately. “If there is an official request, I am ready to do so, not just once but 100 times over,” Bachchan said.

“I am a citizen of this country and I am ready to do anything for it,” he said.

“However, I do not want to do anything that would jeopardise the release of the hostages. It is a political problem and lots of people are involved in seeking their release, including the ministry of external affairs. I am really a non-entity and hence I do not wish to jeopardise the whole process of getting them back home,” the actor added.

“I do not think this whole thing (the request for his appeal) looks very serious or authentic till I actually receive a statement from the government or the external affairs ministry,” he said.

Indian officials said the reference to “film stars by Dulami was made in an interview four to five days back and does not appear to have any connection with the events of today”.

Asked whether he would be ready to fly down and seek their release, Bachchan said: “Let there first be some kind of official request from the government.”

Echoing him, Asha Parekh said she was willing to appeal for the release of the hostages.

The fresh demand made by the abductors stunned the hostages’ family members in Himachal Pradesh and Punjab. The government’s statement last night that decks had been cleared for the release had rekindled hope among the families, who were once earlier let down by a Kenyan statement that the captives have been freed.

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