July 26: The first words Pramila Devi uttered when she regained consciousness today were addressed at the militants who are holding her husband hostage in Iraq.
“Consider me your little sister and release my husband,” Tilak Raj’s wife said from a hospital bed in Himachal Pradesh.
Miles away, the hostage takers, too, spoke, extending a deadline indefinitely for beheading one of the seven foreign hostages and issuing a warning to the Indian government.
The militants cautioned India against attacking “Islamic religious leaders” in the first such direct warning since the hostage crisis broke.
A videotape released today showed a masked man reading a statement that said the group had decided to extend the deadline in response to an appeal from Sheikh Hisham al-Dulami, the head of what Dulami calls the Detainees’ Association and who declared himself a negotiator for the hostages.
Two armed and masked men stood at the side of the announcer, behind the kneeling hostages who were dressed in white smocks.
It was not clear what prompted the group, which calls itself the Holders of the Black Banner, to warn the Indian government against attacking religious leaders.
The government had said on Saturday that the abductors did not appear to be politically affiliated and money seemed to their motive. But external affairs ministry officials said in private that the militants could be referring to an online report that hinted at armed action to free the hostages. Whatever the reason, the officials said, it shows that the obscure group is clued in to developments in India.
However, in public, India said it would keep its comments to “the very minimum”. “It is a very delicate matter involving the lives of innocent people,” external affairs ministry spokesperson Navtej Sarna said.
He said the Kuwait company, which has again been asked to cease operations in Iraq by the hostage takers, has informed the government that negotiations are “proceeding well”.