New Delhi, July 3: A few Iraqi dinars of cellphone charge today separated India from near helplessness in assisting 46 captured nurses bussed out of Iraq’s Tikrit by militants towards an unknown location, mirroring Delhi’s dwindling options in the face of twin abduction crises.
The nurses — all women — were late this evening still travelling and with little remaining money on their prepaid phones, senior officials said.
“Once the phones die out, we have no way of knowing where the nurses are anymore,” an official said. “We can do little but hope that the militants will provide the nurses a way of communicating with us.”
The bus ride out of Tikrit followed over four hours of intense discussions between foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, Kerala chief minister Oomen Chandy and foreign ministry officials here and in Baghdad. Most of the nurses are from Kerala.
But the outcome of those discussions only underlined the growing sense of helplessness that has gripped India’s foreign policy establishment, already struggling for ways to rescue 39 other Indian workers abducted in Mosul.
The nurses in Tikrit had told Indian officials over the telephone this morning that militants believed to belong to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria had taken control of the hospital where they lived and worked, and were pressuring them to travel with them out of the city.
The officials initially told the nurses to stay in the hospital unless forced to leave by the militants who, despite holding guns, had till then couched their conversations with the nurses in politeness.
But the meeting to formulate India’s strategy to help the nurses concluded that a lack of options for Delhi meant the women were safest in following whatever they were asked to do by their abductors.
“Our mission has advised the nurses to proceed to wherever they are proceeding,” foreign ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said. “I do not know what their destination is. They are not going of their own free will.”
Ajish, a male nurse from Kerala in Baghdad, said he had spoken to the nurses a little after 8pm and they said they were roughly two hours away from Mosul. The abductors were heavily armed but had a “friendly” manner, he quoted the nurses as saying. The abductors had told the nurses they could call only their families if they wished, Ajish told Mathrubhumi News.
Sasikumar, the father of Surthi who is one of the nurses, said he had spoken to her early this morning and she said the militants were pressuring them to leave.
India’s “advice” to the nurses followed the bleak assessment of Delhi’s options laid out to Sushma, Chandy — and later to Prime Minister Narendra Modi — by diplomats involved with the Iraq evacuation plans.
Iraq’s government forces, who till yesterday were hopeful of recapturing Tikrit, today fell back, Indian officials said, ceding all control to the ISIS militants.
A second key reason why India advised the nurses to follow the instructions of the militants involves Delhi’s intermediaries with its nationals in the conflict zone — the Iraqi Red Crescent, the country arm of the global humanitarian agency.
The Red Crescent, a senior official who is a liaison with the agency said, had told India it could no longer reach the nurses to confirm their safety. The agency did confirm, however, that its representatives in Mosul had “seen” the male abductees there, and described them as “unharmed.”
It was the Red Crescent that was till now recharging the nurses’ phones with Iraqi dinars to enable them to call home occasionally and to communicate with Indian negotiators.
“In effect, we lost the only physical — even if indirect — communication with the nurses,” the official said. “Our options, quite honestly, are really limited.”
India’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, widely believed to be a behind-the-scenes sponsor of sections of the ISIS, is one of those few remaining avenues that Delhi is counting on to convince the abductors to at least not harm the nurses.
That the abductors haven’t hurt the nurses — though five suffered minor injuries today when a nearby explosion propelled shards of glass towards them — is another of the strands of hope Indian officials are clinging to.
Finally, the more optimistic among the foreign policy establishment are arguing, the militants may move the nurses to Mosul to join the other Indian abductees, simplifying any eventual rescue or evacuation effort. Mosul, 250 km from Tikrit, is on the edge of the autonomous Kurdistan region which is free from ISIS control.
But every one of these few hopeful options India is counting on depends on the goodwill of the abductors, a reality that New Delhi is slowly accepting even publicly.
“This is a situation of grave difficulty,” Akbaruddin, the foreign ministry spokesperson said. “This is a situation where lives are at stake.”
Additional reporting by our special correspondent in Thiruvananthapuram