July 25: The clock ticked on a deadline expiring at 8 pm tomorrow for beheading of one of seven hostages — three of them Indians — by an Iraqi militant group with negotiators hinting at “assurances” that they would be freed.
The families of the three Indians — Sukhdev Singh, Tilak Raj and Antaryami — were cracking up under the pressure. Tilak Raj’s pregnant wife was admitted to hospital after she stopped eating.
The Indian government, however, held out hope, saying that the hostages would be freed soon. “India is trying its best to rescue the three hostages at all levels. I cannot divulge any secret information or make it an issue of debate but they would be freed soon... I am sure,” foreign minister Natwar Singh said in Jaipur.
Echoing him, the minister of state for external affairs, E. Ahmed, said: “We have information that negotiations are under way and the outcome will be positive. I am saying this on the basis of a report I received from our ambassador in Kuwait.”
The Kuwaiti employer of the hostages, too, said it had assurances that the captives would be freed. “Yes, there are promises and assurances (the hostages would be freed) especially after the kidnappers became certain that we have no presence in Iraq and we were just conducting transportation for the interest of some Iraqis,” said a statement from the Kuwait and Gulf Link Transport Company.
The statement added: “We are currently negotiating with the kidnappers via some Iraqi friends. There is no interference from anyone because we want to ensure that the negotiation goes smoothly.”
Al Arabiya television reported earlier that the kidnappers had appointed a senior tribal leader to mediate their release. “The group said in a statement that it had appointed Sheikh Hisham al-Dulaymi, the head of the National Group of Iraqi Tribal Leaders, to negotiate with the embassies of the hostages and the Kuwaiti firm,” the Arabic channel said.
The kidnappers, a little-known group called the Holders of the Black Banner, have threatened to start beheading one hostage every 72 hours starting tomorrow if its demands are not met.
First they had demanded withdrawal of the Kuwaiti company that employed the seven as truck drivers from Iraq and a pullout of all citizens by the governments of India, Kenya and Egypt. Three of the hostages are Kenyan and one is an Egyptian. Later, they introduced the element of money, asking for compensation for families of victims of the US offensive in the Iraqi city of Falluja.
The Indian government made a second appeal for their release with Ahmed reading out a statement in Arabic on Arab TV networks, addressing religious sentiments.
“Islam teaches everybody to be just and fair and the people of India expect that the captors will also honour the Islamic way of thinking towards the innocent. As far as I am concerned, I have absolute faith in Almighty Allah to give Hidayath to the group who keep our people as hostages to release them,” the statement said.