Even as Friday's reports from Baghdad suggested that Indian mission officials have managed to establish contact with Sunni tribesmen in northern Iraq, seeking their help to free 39 Indians currently in custody of militants, Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired a high-level review meeting here. The PM told the participants, including home minister Rajnath Singh, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, national security advisor Ajit Doval, cabient secretary Ajit Seth, foreign secretary Sujatha Singh and heads of the Intelligence Bureau and the RAW, to ensure safety and early resolution of hostages.
Sources said while the meeting discussed various options available, the ultimate decision was to use diplomatic channels, to persuade captors to release Indian workers. The meeting was also told that former Indian ambassador to Iraq Suresh Reddy, who reached Baghdad on Thrusday, has established contact with local community leaders in Mosul, to track the kidnapped workers.
Earlier, the external affairs ministry had confirmed that an Indian had managed to escape and contacted the Indian embassy in Baghdad. Iraqi Red Crescent's president, Dr Yaseen Abbass, said from Baghdad that the escaped Indian was safe and currently in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, near the Kurdistan border.
Further, in a rescue operation, 16 Indians in the troubled region were evacuated. Official spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said the abducted Indians are safe, and pointed out that the government is knocking on all doors — front doors, back doors and trapped doors — to ensure their release. Giving details of evacuations, he said eight Indians were evacuated from Baiji, and eight others were moved out from Anbar. All 16 have since been flown out of Baghdad.
Iraq is witnessing extreme strife with Sunni militants belonging to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) capturing two key cities, and marching towards Baghdad. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been displaced in the fighting that broke out on June 10. Though, the government was still not disclosing the location of hostages, an Iraqi diplomat in the capital said they seem to be located at a government building, being used as a warehouse on the outskirts of Mosul. The diplomat further said there were workers from other nationalities, such as Turkish, Egyptians and some East Asia, too at the same place.
Prime Minister at a review meeting was told that India was working with Turkey, the US, Russia, Iran and Israel for intelligence inputs and also to establish contact with the right people. There is also apprehension of safety of these workers in the wake of a likely US strike against ISIL militants.
About 10,000 Indians are estimated to be in Iraq with just over 100 believed to be in the disturbed region between Mosul and Tikrit. Of these, 16 have been evacuated, 39 are being held hostage and 46 are nurses holed up in a hospital in Tikrit.
Earlier in the morning, Swaraj in a review meeting, decided that any Indian desiring to return but having no money, will be assisted by the government, to reach home. A request was also made to Iraqi authorities to amend their visa rules and allow workers to leave the country from any port. As per visa rules, it is mandatory to use the same port for disembarkation as has been used for embarkation. Further, all missions in the region have been asked to coordinate and help Indians who may have crossed over to these countries. They were asked to process documents of such Indian citizens and help in their repatriation. Also the protector of emigrants, who process applications for blue collar workers requiring emigration clearance has been asked to stop issuing any such clearance for Iraq-bound workers for a month.
Further, experts on West Asian affairs have asked New Delhi to resist using any military means as media reports had suggested that the government was thinking about using special forces to rescue hostages. Ambassador Chinmaya Gharekhan, an old West Asian hand, said at a time when even the United States was feeling reluctant to get involved in Iraq, it would be extremely unwise of India to think of any military option. He said the disturbances in Iraq will spur inflation and will make India dependent on Saudi Arabia and Iran for oil.