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VIP reception awaits freed trio

Sept. 2: The three Indian hostages released in Iraq yesterday are scheduled to reach Delhi from Kuwait at dawn on Friday.

They will be received at Indira Gandhi International Airport by minister of state for external affairs E. Ahmed. A junior minister in the foreign ministry is usually assigned to receive state guests and act as minister-in-waiting when heads of government visit the country.

The three Indian truckers, Antaryami, Tilak Raj and Sukhdev Singh, are scheduled to arrive at 4.45 am by a Kuwait Airways flight.

Ahmed’s decision to be at the airport has raised eyebrows among some officials, but sources close to him pointed out that political leaders sometimes have to give humanitarian gestures more primacy than protocol.

But some officials in Ahmed’s ministry are splitting hairs. “We are all happy that the hostages were released without any harm. But the three truckers had also violated Indian visa rules,” a senior foreign ministry official said.

At least two joint secretary-level officials from the foreign ministry and representatives of the governments of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, from where the three hail, will also be present at the airport.

The Himachal government has arranged vehicles to ferry 21 people, most of them relatives of Antaryami and Tilak Raj, to Delhi. They left for the capital this evening, accompanied by a top official.

Antaryami had called his father Ram Murti from Baghdad yesterday evening. “We’re happy and want to see you as early as possible,” Ram Murti had told his son.

“Waheguru listened to my prayers when we were celebrating 400 glorious years of the Guru Granth Sahib. God has returned my son. I am grateful to him,” Ram Murti said before leaving for Delhi.

Tilak Raj’s wife Pramila Devi, who had to be hospitalised during the crisis, was also jubilant. “I am very happy. I will distribute sweets to all. Let me see him,” she said while boarding a Delhi-bound vehicle.

KGL, the Kuwaiti transport company that employs the three, has given them long leave and left it to them to decide whether to return to work there.

Indications suggest that the three Indians will be given a welcome befitting heroes. One of the suggestions was to escort the three through the VIP enclosure to the special lounge where Ahmed will receive them.

As head of the hostage crisis management group, Ahmed had been monitoring the drama as it unfolded across three countries. The minister, who got a public pat from his senior K. Natwar Singh yesterday, will host a dinner at his 9 Teen Murti Marg residence tomorrow evening.

Ahmed has issued a statement in Arabic expressing thanks to all those who helped in the release of the hostages.

“In the name of god, most gracious and merciful, I am very happy and express my sincere thanks to our brothers and friends in Iraq for releasing the three Indian hostages,” he said.

On one or two occasions, foreign secretaries have gone to the airport to receive “battered” Indian officials sent back from Pakistan. Protocol does not allow that, but such gestures are usually made to boost the morale of officials serving in difficult circumstances.

Recently, Jaswant Singh, as foreign minister, had to carry three militants with him in an aircraft to resolve the Kandahar hijack crisis. The explanation then was that he did so because the hijackers of the Indian Airlines plane had made that a condition.

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