New Delhi, July 4: A mix of cloak-and-dagger consultations, tenacious door-knocks by diplomats and a subtle signal from Saudi Arabia’s top cleric appear to have taken the Narendra Modi government closer to a way out of an Iraq hostage crisis.
Militants believed to belong to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) released 46 Indian women nurses this evening near Mosul in northern Iraq after bussing them over 250km from Tikrit, where they had been trapped for over three weeks.
Workers of humanitarian agency Red Crescent then brought the nurses to Erbil, capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region in northeast Iraq that is home to the Citadel of Arbil, one of the oldest continuously inhabited sites in the world. Indian officials have met the nurses in Erbil.
An Air India plane headed from New Delhi to Erbil today and was scheduled to fly the nurses and 70 other Indians back to India, reaching by Saturday morning.
NDTV reported late tonight that the plane was initially diverted to Iran but it later headed back to Erbil. The cause of the diversion — some reports said permission to land in Erbil was withheld initially — was not known. The nurses boarded the plane which took off around 3.30am.
S.K. Sinha, a joint secretary in the Indian foreign office, and a Kerala government representative are on the plane.
If everything goes according to plan, the plane will first fly to Kochi since almost all the nurses belong to Kerala and then reach Delhi where the rest will get off. Another 39 Indian workers remain in captivity, held by ISIS militants in Mosul for two weeks now.
“We have won a small, little battle but we have a larger war remaining,” foreign ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin had said earlier in the day.
“India used all of its national assets — and that includes the goodwill India enjoys inside Iraq and outside — to achieve the release of the nurses. Our success gives us hope.”
The “hope” of the nurses’ release turned into confidence only this afternoon, after a few of the multiple diplomatic doors New Delhi had knocked over the past three weeks finally swung open.
Officially, the foreign office refuses to detail the strategies that helped free the nurses. But senior Indian and Saudi Arabian officials confirmed that a combination of religious and spy networks helped convince the militants to hand the nurses over.
India, the officials said, had sent a message earlier this week through intermediaries to Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, Abdul-Aziz ibn Abdullah Al ash-Sheikh, seeking his intervention.
The grand mufti is the topmost interpreter of Saudi Arabia’s strict religious code of Wahhabi Sunni practice and is one of the two pillars that hold up the kingdom, the other being the Al-Saud family that rules the nation.
His position as grand mufti also makes him the religious leader with the most influence over the ISIS militants, many of whom subscribe to Wahhabi Sunni Islam.
It is unclear exactly how, but officials indicated the grand mufti communicated —through multiple intermediaries — to his followers in Iraq that he wanted the Indian nurses released.
“In the holy month of Ramazan, holding women captive was not okay — that’s the message the abductors appear to have got,” an official said.
Indian diplomats in Iraq were also talking to counterparts there from countries that have intelligence agents in the stretch from Tikrit to Mosul, and to a web of workers belonging to the Red Crescent that has been doubling as an information network.
Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj has held over two dozen phone conversations with her counterparts in countries ranging from the Arab world and Israel to the US, Russia and some European nations, seeking any intelligence inputs that could help India.
This, officials said, gave India the possibility of tracking the nurses as they were moved out of Tikrit in a bus even if their cellphones died.
India had also deputed a team of officials from its embassy in Baghdad to Erbil to assist any Indian nationals who had escaped from the conflict zone in central Iraq into Kurdistan.
These officials began networking with their Kurdish government counterparts to iron out the challenges that any handover of the captives, or the absence of any legal documents with the nurses, could pose.
“We had anticipated this possibility,” Akbaruddin said, referring to the release of the nurses through Kurdistan.
“Now, with the resources freed up by this success, we will renew our efforts to secure the release of the workers in Mosul.”