New Delhi, Sept. 20: Nearly 70 Indians have been left stranded in the no-man's land bordering Mauritania and south-western Algeria while trying to cross over illegally, in a fresh headache for the government after the recent Iraq hostage crisis.
However, unlike the three hostages who grabbed headlines before and after their release from their Iraqi captors, reports about the group stranded in northwestern Africa for over a month now have so far been kept a closely guarded secret by the government. Fortunately, there are no hostage takers this time and no deadlines to get the Indians out of the area.
They are still in the custody of the International Organisation of Migration in camps near Mauritania, waiting for the government to make arrangements to take them back home. But as there has hardly been any publicity, Delhi seems to be in no hurry.
The stranded Indians, in two groups of 23 and 44, landed in north-western Africa some time in August, but South Block claims it got to know about them only in early September. As Delhi does not have a mission in Mauritania and its ambassador in Senegal, Balakrishna Shetty, looks after India's affairs in the neighbouring country, officials from the mission in Dakar are being sent to find out the identity of the stranded group.
Sources said the Indians, predominantly from Punjab, appeared to have landed in the remote African country on their way to Spain. They said the group must have been brought there by unscrupulous travel agents with the promise of lucrative jobs in Europe. North Africa for years has been a favourite route for agents for smuggling people into Europe.
Although details received by South Block till now are sketchy, there are suggestions that the Indians were brought there to be taken across the Mediterranean Sea at night into Spain. The sources said from Spain they may have gone across to other European cities looking for employment. Somehow the plan went awry and the Indians were left in the lurch in the Saharan desert.
The sources added that authorities in Mauritania must have got in touch with the International Organisation of Migration and handed over the Indians.
South Block officials said steps were being taken to bring the Indians back. But before that officials from the embassy in Dakar will have to reach Mauritania to ascertain whether all of them are Indians. Once their identity and nationality are established, they will be given travel documents and air tickets to return home.