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No more a safe zone for India

New Delhi, Aug. 8: The foreign office is bracing for a new crisis in Iraq: the prospect of evacuating thousands of Indians from Kurdistan, deemed safe till now but emerging as the latest battleground between militants, local forces and returning US fighter jets.

The external affairs ministry, already struggling to secure the release of 41 abducted workers in Iraq, is now preparing a strategy to airlift, if necessary, more than 15,000 Indians from the northern region of Kurdistan, officials said.

Any evacuation from Kurdistan would be India’s largest during the current conflict.

Foreign office records show that of the 22,000 Indians in Iraq at the start of the conflict, over 15,000 were in Kurdistan, the one part of Iraq that most nations considered safe and out of bounds for the militants.

While more than 4,000 among the Indians in other parts of Iraq have returned, most Indians in Kurdistan have stayed back.

But the militants, after grabbing swathes of central Iraq, have reached the borders of Kurdistan, which has long been fighting for its independence from Iraq and where many ethnic minorities fleeing the extremist group have sought refuge.

“We’re still hoping that the Kurdish forces, with the western assistance they will now receive, would be able to repel the militants,” an Indian official in Iraq said. “But if they continue their surge into Kurdistan, we (India) could be facing a crisis that may shadow even the abductions.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi articulated India’s concerns at a meeting with visiting US defence secretary Chuck Hagel today, officials said. Hagel, they said, assured Modi that the US would share the details of its military assault in northern Iraq.

The foreign office had said repeatedly that Kurdistan, where the overwhelming majority of Indians in Iraq live and work, was not in the militants’ crosshairs.

The focus on the battle zone in central and northern Iraq, and subsequently southern Iraq, deepened after the militants abducted 41 Indian construction workers in Mosul in June and held 46 Indian nurses in Tikrit.


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