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Centre mulls Iraq rescue in batches

New Delhi, June 21: India will evacuate its citizens in Iraq in batches, as they reach Baghdad, and will not employ mass evacuation strategies used three years ago when New Delhi plucked out 18,000 nationals trapped in the middle of Libya’s civil war.

Top government officials confirmed to The Telegraph that India has concluded that the tactics used in Libya would not work in Iraq, where just over 100 nationals are trapped in regions witnessing the worst violence.

“It (mass evacuation) is simply not going to work here,” an official said. “We have no option but to get our citizens out of the conflict zone, batch by batch, group by group, and then fly them back to India.”

The foreign ministry, which today confirmed that India’s interlocutors in Baghdad had for the first time managed to contact 40 construction workers abducted last weekend by militants, as this newspaper had first reported yesterday, reaffirmed that the men were safe.

But officials warned that the ongoing battle between Iraqi forces and militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria made any evacuation impossible.

In 2011, three Indian ships had sailed to Libya, picked up nationals close to the coast, and dropped them in Malta from where they were flown back to India. Many others were directly airlifted from Libya’s heartland and flown back to India.

Five years earlier in 2006, Indian Navy ships had sailed to the coast of Lebanon to evacuate Indians trapped there. Israel had attacked Lebanon and a war had broken out.

India also helped evacuate Sri Lankan and Nepalese nationals in Lebanon.

In 1990, India had conducted its biggest such evacuation of over 110,000 nationals from Kuwait when that country was attacked by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq at the start of the Gulf War.

But unlike those occasions, sending Indian ships to Iraq would serve little purpose because the southern part of the country, close to the coast, is safe, untouched by the civil war, and citizens there can access commercial planes.

However, Indian airplanes cannot airlift citizens from central Iraq, the theatre of the most bitter and violent conflicts, because of a lack of any safe landing strip, officials said.

Instead, India is waiting for the violence around Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city where the abducted men are being held, to cease before it ventures any evacuation by road.

“Till then, we are just going to keep in regular touch with the men to ensure we know at all times where they are and that they are fine,” another official said.

India is also focusing on evacuating citizens not in the worst conflict zones but keen to return and those in the conflict zone who manage to reach either Kurdistan in the north or Baghdad in the south.

“I would request all Indians in the conflict zone of Iraq to stay indoors and not try to escape anywhere,” Iraq’s ambassador to India Tahseen Ahmad Berwari said today.

Of those who can be evacuated, several hundred are in Najaf in southern Iraq, where Amnesty International today claimed they were stranded because their employers refused to return their passports.

“I have been working here for over two years and my employer is withholding more than $1,500 of my salary,” PTI quoted one worker as saying. “Most of my colleagues are in the same situation.”

But the foreign office has said it is willing to provide emergency travel documents to any Indian national in Iraq keen to return. “No Indian national need to worry about that,” foreign ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said on Friday.