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The price: $1 million

Sept. 1: His face wrapped in a red checked kaffiyeh, a kidnapper shook hands with them, hugged them and handed them a copy of the Quran. Then, they were set free.

No one mentioned the ransom. Not until the hostages were safely out of Iraq.

Antaryami, who was in a “death suit” with a gun behind his head last time India saw him, fellow hostages Tilak Raj, Sukhdev Singh and four others were released in Iraq today after six weeks in captivity.

Back in India, a wave of relief swept the homes of the three and a relative could not but help point out the symbolic significance of the day.

“The release of the hostages is a gift of Guru Granth Sahib,” said Harbinder, the brother of Sukhdev, in Punjab, referring to the 400th anniversary of the Sikh holy scripture today.

The Indian government was equally jubilant but in a self-congratulatory mode.

“We have got them released in consistency with our policy and without sacrificing any of the principles,” junior foreign minister E. Ahamed said in Delhi, in an apparent reference to the government’s policy not to negotiate with terrorists and pay ransom.

Sitting by his side, foreign minister Natwar Singh thanked Ahamed for the long hours he had put in to monitor the crisis.

However, a few hours later when the freed hostages landed in Kuwait, their employer admitted in public what the Indian government would not.

“We paid nearly $1 million (Rs 4.6 crore) in all to secure their release. The payment was made in four phases,” Kuwait Gulf and Link (KGL) spokesperson Rana Abu-Zaineh told PTI from Kuwait.

She said the Indian government was aware of the ransom payment but was not part of the negotiations. As much as $500,000 was paid towards the end.

The company also disclosed that it had not ceased operations in Iraq — the last publicly stated demand of the abductors. “The only difference is that we are not sending our people or outsiders to Iraq now but hiring locals for our work in Iraq,” Abu-Zaineh said.

In a videotape released in Baghdad, the seven men — the others are three Kenyans and an Egyptian — were shown wearing white robes and kneeling in prayer. Besides the Quran, they were given Islamic literature and what looked like a compact disc.

The freed men were first brought to the Indian embassy in Baghdad and later flown to Kuwait. They are expected to reach India on Friday.

In Kuwait City, the three Indians issued a statement thanking the governments of India and Kuwait, their company and their captors. “Those who were holding us treated us well and gave us food, water and a place to stay. We are thankful to them for the good treatment given to us,” the statement said.

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