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India steps up efforts for release of hostages

New Delhi/Islamabad, July 22
India today stepped up efforts to secure the safe release of its three nationals held hostage in Iraq along with four others as a video showed the captives making desperate pleas for their lives.

One of the Indians with a stubble on his face, who identified himself as Tilak Raj, said “We are being held here against our will because they feel we are supporting America. They have also taken away our vehicles. We are three Indians, three Kenyans and one Egyptian.”

“We are being given food and water,” said the man with a greying hair, who was wearing a light brown shirt.

Besides Tilak Raj, the other Indians held hostage are Ataryami and Sukhdev Singh. While Tilak Raj and Ataryami hail from Una in Himachal Pradesh, Sukhdev Singh is from Ropar in Punjab.

All the seven hostages were truck drivers working for a Kuwaiti firm, KGL Transport Company. They were held captive yesterday by a group calling itself ‘Black Flags’, which has threatened to execute one hostage every 72 hours if their Kuwaiti employer does not leave the country.

The Indian government was in touch with authorities in Iraq and Kuwait besides the embassies of the US and Kuwait in Delhi to end the hostage crisis.

External Affairs Minister K Natwar Singh, who is in Islamabad, said the government was making all efforts to ensure their release and safe return.

“We have all been shocked and distressed at the kidnapping ... This is a serious development,” he said while appealing to “all those who have influence to assist in ensuring their safe return.”

Singh also spoke to his Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari, who is in Cairo, on the phone and told him that the hostages had nothing to do with combat or military operation. They were truck drivers carrying humanitarian aid from Kuwait.

The Iraqi Foreign Minister promised all assistance to secure the safe release of the hostages, Singh said.

Condemning the abduction of the Indians in the strongest words, Singh said the hostages “are not combatants but innocent people of a friendly country.”

“Whatever objective these people who kidnapped them have is surely wrong. As it is they don’t have any sympathy. But to do this to Indians, Egyptians and Kenyans will only arouse passions and emotions.”

He also ruled out advising Indian nationals in Iraq to leave the country in view of the development.

“No, we have not reached such a stage. Let us see how the situation evolves,” Singh said when asked by reporters whether India will advise its nationals in Iraq to return.

He said India was also in touch with New Delhi-based envoys of Kenya and Egypt, whose nationals were among the hostages.

The US Embassy in Delhi said it was in touch with its mission in Baghdad to facilitate contact between the Indian Government, the Iraqi Government and the multinational force in Iraq to secure their release.

The Kuwaiti Embassy in Delhi said the militants who carried out the kidnapping were “a group of terrorists who are trying to take the entire Iraq as hostage... The kidnappers do not represent the Iraqi people.”

The Egyptian hostage, who was seen speaking in Arabic in a video footage, pleaded for their lives to be spared.

“We want to go home, please help us so that we are not cut up into pieces because then you would bear the guilt of orphaning our children,” he said.

“We work for KGL and we were captured in, yes... we were arrested...please release us, and I swear to God that aiding the Americans is wrong,” said the bearded man who was wearing a white shirt.

Describing the abduction, he said “the sheikhs and the powerful bosses took us and left our trailers in one place.”

“They led us to another place, where they are feeding us and providing us with water while they decide whether we are guilty,” the man said in the footage, which also showed six other hostages. He also vowed never to enter Iraq or Kuwait again or to work for the US forces. — PTI
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