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Mixed signals on nurses

New Delhi, July 2: Humanitarian aid agency Amnesty International today claimed militants had captured 46 Indian nurses stranded in central Iraq’s Tikrit, which has emerged a key front of the battle between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Baghdad’s government forces.

But the Indian government said it was confident the nurses remained safe and unharmed, though it refused to explain the discrepancy with the conclusions of the aid group which said it had spoken to the nurses today.

The ISIS is already holding 39 Indian construction workers in Mosul, and New Delhi has been unable to begin negotiations with the militants.

The diverging accounts over the nurses are the latest pointer to the leaky, often contradictory, intelligence inputs India is relying on to evacuate its citizens from battle-torn Iraq. Such inputs are also injecting uncertainty into those efforts.

“They told us that they won’t harm us,” the Amnesty International media statement quoted one of the nurses telling them. “But they are carrying guns. We are feeling threatened.”

The ISIS had seized control of Tikrit in early June but it was only this past weekend that the Iraq army began fresh attempts to regain the city, triggering fresh violence that India yesterday admitted has left the nurses more vulnerable than ever.

The nurses, who haven’t been paid for at least four months, include many who have refused to return till they are paid. They have been working at a hospital in central Tikrit and had to seek shelter yesterday in the building’s basement as bombs exploded on the streets around them.

“The threat is much more real,” the aid agency quoted another nurse saying.

But Indian foreign ministry spokesperson and joint secretary Syed Akbaruddin said the ambassador to Iraq, Anil Kumar, had spoken to the nurses late this afternoon. “I can confirm that they are safe and unharmed,” Akbaruddin said.

India has advised the nurses on multiple occasions over the past two weeks to stay indoors and not attempt any rescue, fearing that they may find themselves caught in the crossfire between militants and security forces.

If, as Amnesty International has claimed, the nurses are now in captivity, India will need to open a channel for negotiations with those holding them.

“It was too risky for the nurses to try and come from Tikrit to Baghdad by road,” an official said, explaining why New Delhi had suggested that the nurses wait the battles out in Tikrit. “But even though we believe they are safe as of now, what is absolutely clear is that any rescue attempt is now even harder.”