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India readies to talk to abductors Iraq traces location

New Delhi, June 19: India is preparing for talks with the abductors of 40 Indian construction workers in Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul to get its nationals released after Baghdad told New Delhi it had discovered where the kidnapped men are being held.

Former Indian ambassador to Iraq Suresh Reddy, who reached Baghdad this morning, will lead negotiations for India once contact is established with the abductors, senior officials revealed.

“We have been told by the foreign ministry of Iraq that they have been able to determine the location where these abducted Indian nationals are being held captive,” external affairs ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said.

Akbaruddin refused to disclose the location shared by Iraq amid fears that any move that may panic the abductors — militants with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — could jeopardise the safety of the hostages.

But a senior Indian official and an Iraqi diplomat independently told this newspaper that Baghdad’s intelligence suggested the Indian workers were being held at a government building — described by one of them as a warehouse — on the outskirts of Mosul.

Both these officials and the Iraqi Red Crescent — a part of the global Red Cross movement — which is leading the search for the kidnapped men cautioned, however, that any location can be confirmed only after they speak with the workers and their abductors.

“This is a fluid situation, and this intelligence has been gathered in the midst of a civil war,” the Iraqi official said.

Iraq has told India that the militants holding the Indians are also holding a few Turkish workers at the same location. Iraq, India and Turkey are jointly working on their strategy to get the men released, officials said.

India has also been speaking with the US, Russia, Iran and Israel for any intelligence inputs. In particular, India has asked the US to take into account its citizens and their safety in any military attack it launches to tackle the ISIS, a Sunni militant group that splintered from al Qaida earlier this year.

In Delhi, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj and her officials offered distinct messages to their clearly different audiences as the Narendra Modi government grappled with its first foreign policy crisis.

Asked about conversations that some of the kidnapped men have had with family members, in which they have reportedly told the relatives they were safe, the foreign ministry was sharp in its retort.

“There is no safety in captivity,” Akbaruddin said, his hard message clearly targeted at — among others — terror groups and their sponsors. “Safety is in being where you are welcome.”

But barely an hour later, Swaraj told family members of the abducted men when they met her here that Iraq had told India the kidnapped workers were safe, the relatives said.

“These are tricky times, where you need to keep family members updated and calm, yet appear strong and determined to the world you are negotiating with,” a senior official said.

A total of about 10,000 Indians are estimated to be in Iraq, with just over 100 believed to be in the region between Mosul and Tikrit, close to Baghdad, where the ISIS has seized control.

Indian officials are worried that any fresh violence between the militants and the Iraqi force near Mosul, and even hints of American aerial attacks could jeopardise attempts to rescue the workers.

The abductors have not sought any ransom nor made any other demand yet in exchange for releasing the Indian workers. But fear for their own safety may make the abductors shift their location, Indian officials said.

The militants may in fact already have shifted their location twice since they captured the Indian and Turkish nationals, officials said.

“I’m really sorry, but no one can be absolutely sure where the abductors and the Indian workers are right now,” Yaseen Ahmad Abbas, the president of Iraq’s Red Crescent Society, told The Telegraph over phone from Baghdad.

Swaraj said the government was trying its best. “However, patience is essential.”