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Rescue talks for nurses caught in war

New Delhi, July 1: India has begun desperate talks with West Asian nations to rescue from Iraq’s Tikrit 46 nurses believed till now to be safe, but were today caught in the middle of a bruising battle between militants and Iraqi forces for control of the city.

The foreign ministry held an emergency meeting late afternoon with envoys from Iran, Israel and other nations neighbouring Iraq, seeking help to build a safe zone around the hospital where the nurses are trapped, senior officials said.

“There has been bombing and firing in their (the nurses’) vicinity,” foreign ministry spokesperson and joint secretary Syed Akbaruddin said. “They are in an extremely delicate situation.”

The meeting was the second held by India over the past 10 days, but the first focused on the nurses who were on Tuesday huddled in the basement of a hospital where they worked.

Many nurses had till the last weekend indicated to Indian negotiators at the embassy in Baghdad that they preferred to stay in Tikrit, overrun a fortnight ago by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which claimed it had set up a caliphate that included Tikrit.

India’s efforts in Iraq had been focused on evacuating nationals in zones unaffected by the fighting and on ensuring that 39 abducted Indians in Mosul remained unharmed, while providing the nurses in Tikrit money and food to wait out the battle over central Iraq.

“Since Tikrit was in the control of the rebels who showed no indication of wanting to hurt the nurses, it was clearly the best idea to wait it out till it was safe to travel by road through conflict areas to Baghdad,” an official involved in evacuation efforts said. “That has all changed now.”

Over the weekend, Iraq forces claimed they had reached Tikrit, beaten back the ISIS militants and re-taken control of the city that former ruler Saddam Hussein called home. But today, multiple reports from the city and intelligence inputs from several countries confirmed that the government forces and rebels were still engaged in battle in the heart of the city.

The Iraq government and the Iraqi Red Crescent — the humanitarian agency India is counting on most for help to evacuate its nationals — have also cautioned New Delhi about Indian news reports that could jeopardise the nurses’ safety.

“I plead to you with folded hands to listen to what the government of Iraq and the humanitarian agencies are telling us,” Akbaruddin told reporters. “Those of you trying to contact the nurses by telephone while they are in the conflict zone are jeopardising their lives.”