July 21: India’s worst nightmare came true tonight as three of its citizens were taken hostage in Iraq without it having sent a single soldier to join the US-led coalition forces in that country.
The crisis erupted just a day after a kidnapped Filipino was freed, with guerrillas saying they had seized three Indians, two Kenyans and an Egyptian and threatening to kill them one by one every 72 hours starting 8 pm on Wednesday.
In video footage given to the Arabic Al Arabiya channel, the masked gunmen said they would behead the captives — all truck drivers — unless the Kuwaiti company, Universal Services, they worked for pulled out of Iraq. Some news agencies quoted the group as asking the three countries to withdraw troops, although none of them has sent any to that country.
“We announce we have captured two Kenyans, three Indians and one Egyptian. We tell the company to withdraw and close its offices in Iraq,” said one of the masked men, from a little-known group calling itself the “Holders of the Black Banners”.
Pictures handed out to the Associated Press showed six of the hostages standing behind three seated masked gunmen. One hostage is shown holding a sheet of paper with the typed names of seven men, their nationalities, passport numbers and registration numbers of their trucks. The paper had “July 20” stamped on it and the words “Universal Services” hand-written on top.
The names listed in the paper were Antaryami, Tilak Raj and Sukdev Singh from India; Ibrahim Khamis, Salm Faiz Khamis and Jalal Awadh from Kenya (one of the Kenyans is not a hostage); and Mohammed Ali Sanad from Egypt.
In a statement circulated with the pictures, the group said: “We have warned all the countries, companies, businessmen and truck drivers that those who deal with American cowboy occupiers will be targeted by the fires of the Mujahideen.
“Here you are once again transporting goods, weapons and military equipment that backs the US army.”
The Al Arabiya broadcast showed the Egyptian captive, Mohammed Ali Sanad, begging his company to comply with the kidnappers’ demands.
“They will chop off our heads. Who will feed my family, my brothers and sisters' I urge my company to take action and send us home,” he said.
Although Delhi has banned all recruitments for Iraq, there are as many as 5,000 Indians working in that country. Most of them are employees of Kuwaiti companies. Others are employed in non-military activity — as cooks, truck drivers or computer operators — in the American forces’ camps in the Kuwaiti desert bordering Iraq.
Late tonight, the Indian government said all efforts were being made to secure the release of the hostages.
“The government is in touch with the embassy of India in Iraq to see what can be done to rescue the kidnapped men. Our embassy is also working closely with the Iraqi interim government and is in touch with the US forces in Iraq. We are concerned about the ultimatum, but the Indian government has not sent troops there.
“There seems to be some confusion, the kidnappers are apparently not familiar with the ground situation and with the fact that we have no troops on the ground,” a senior government official said in Delhi.