A man prays at an Ahmedabad mosque on Friday for the safe return of the Indian workers kidnapped in Iraq. (AFP)
New Delhi, June 20: Indian interlocutors today managed to communicate with the construction workers abducted by militants in Iraq’s Mosul, confirming they are unharmed, on a day Prime Minister Narendra Modi took charge of what is his government’s biggest foreign policy crisis yet.
Members of Iraq’s Red Crescent — as the humanitarian agency Red Cross is known in Islamic nations — too visited the captured workers and concluded that they were safe for now, a spokesperson for the organisation said.
But the Indian government prepared the nation for what could be several days before it secured the release of the abducted men, because the violence around Mosul makes any rescue operation risky. Of the 40 men kidnapped last weekend, one has escaped and is communicating with the Indian embassy.
“I can confirm that all the abducted men are safe and unharmed,” foreign ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said before adding in response to a question: “Compared to yesterday, the situation today is better.”
The hostages, in phone conversations, revealed that their captors — the notoriously brutal Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that has grabbed vast swathes of Iraq’s territory — had not hurt any of them.
One official indicated to The Telegraph that the Indian interlocutors had managed to speak to one of the abductors but the foreign office refused to confirm this.
“The men (hostages) are safe, with adequate water and food for the time being,” said a spokesperson for Red Crescent.
“What we have now is proper confirmation of where the men are being held, at least right now,” an Indian official said. “That, combined with the knowledge that they are safe and unharmed, gives us some assurance.”
Bolstering the optimism was Indian diplomats’ success, over the past 24 hours, in smuggling 16 Indians out of the war zone that spans central Iraq.
These include eight men working at the Baiji oilfields — Iraq’s largest — and eight working at a project in Anbarrun by Lanco Infratech, the infrastructure giant owned by Lagadapati Rajagopal, the former MP who was expelled for using pepper spray in Parliament.
But that sense of optimism, officials accepted, can change rapidly in the battle zone that is Iraq.
On a day Modi decided to no longer leave the crisis to the foreign ministry to handle, he told his officials not to do anything that could jeopardise the hostages’ safety, sources said.
The Prime Minister today for the first time chaired a crisis management meeting with foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, home minister Rajnath Singh, national security adviser Ajit Doval, Research and Analysis Wing chief Alok Joshi, foreign secretary Sujatha Singh and the secretary (east) in the foreign ministry, Anil Wadhwa.
Modi had till yesterday only sought updates from the foreign ministry.
“Previously I had said it had been a matter of high priority for the ministry of external affairs, but today I would like to say that this is a matter of high priority for the entire Government of India,” Akbaruddin said.
India, he said, had since last night banned emigration clearance for some of its most vulnerable workers — those without a matriculation degree — from leaving for Iraq.
The foreign ministry, Akbaruddin said, had also asked all its missions in countries neighbouring Iraq to speak to their host governments to ensure that no Indian citizen who crosses in from Iraq faces any challenges from immigration or security authorities.
But rescuing the abducted Indian nationals could take time, he cautioned.
“The situation is such that the land routes are extremely difficult to use for bringing out anybody,” Akbaruddin said. “And we have been advised by everybody we have been in touch with — ‘For the present, hold on’.”