The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Price for a hostage: $50000 & more
(From Top) Wait continues for Antaryami's Wife Kusum Lata, Sukhdev's mother Jaspal Kaur and Tilak Raj's wife Promila Devi. File photos

New Delhi, Aug. 22: Fifty thousand dollars each and a bit more ó the difference between doom and deliverance for Antaryami, Tilak Raj, Sukhdev Singh and four other truck drivers held hostage for a month in Iraq.

The kidnappers, a group calling itself the Holders of the Black Banner, have assured Kuwait and Gulf Link Transport Company, the employers of the seven, that they are safe.

And to deliver them safe and sound, the group has quoted a price: $350,000. But thatís not all. It wants a lump sum as compensation for the victims of bombing by US forces on restive Falluja.

Sources said KGL representatives are haggling on the ransom for the seven hostages ó three Kenyans and an Egyptian, besides the three Indians. The hitch is paying the Falluja compensation, a move fraught with political overtones that can jeopardise KGLís future relations with the US occupying forces.

The Kuwait-based KGL has thrived by working closely with the Americans in Iraq. South Block officials claimed KGL has also carried arms for the US troops. The firm has had problems with Iraqi militants in the past too, but has wriggled out by paying off.

Some weeks ago, an Egyptian diplomat kidnapped by Iraqi militants was released after $50,000 changed hands. Going by that deal, the Holders of the Black Banner demanded $350,000 for the seven drivers after kidnapping them on July 21.

The sources said KGL felt the tag was ambitious and began hard-nosed bargaining. Early this month, an agreement was almost reached for $300,000. The two sides were so close to firming up the deal that the Kenyan foreign minister announced the hostages had been freed.

He spoke too soon. Suddenly, the kidnappers asked KGL to pay compensation for the victims of US attacks in Falluja, apparently forcing the firmís representatives to pull back.

Earlier, the company had agreed to suspend its operations in Iraq. But paying the compensation would mean endorsing the stand of anti-Americans forces. KGL feared it would be blacklisted by the US and wanted to avoid it all costs.

With KGL refusing to oblige, the militants have gone back to their original ransom: $350,000. It does not necessarily mean that they have given up the Falluja demand.

As the families of the victims swing between despair and hope, it is clear that if a deal were to be struck, it would be in complete secrecy, without a whisper about the exact amount paid and, most important, if there was a component in it for the Falluja victims.

The Indian leadership has ruled out direct talks with the abductors. B.B. Tyagi, the ambassador to Iraq, and Talmiz Ahmed, the ambassador to Oman who has been flown into Baghdad as a special representative, are trying to use their influence with Iraqi and religious leaders to end the crisis. So far, they have received an assurance that the hostages are safe.

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