The 46 Indian nurses, confined to the Tikrit Teaching Hospital compound in Tikrit, Iraq, for over two weeks, are now said to be in the "protective" custody of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militants.
This is contrary to what the ministry of external affairs (MEA) has been insisting all along: the hospital compound has no rebel presence, and that the nurses are "safe".
A source, who has been in regular contact with the nurses, told dna that Tuesday evening there were apprehensions that the nurses might be moved out of the hospital compound at night by the ISIS militants. But by late evening, fears on that score were put to rest. "The nurses said the buses came and left without them," said the source.
This disquieting development came even as MEA cautioned the Indian media against reporting on the nurses' whereabouts/condition or for that matter of other Indians held captive in Iraq by ISIS rebels.
"Humanitarian agencies and the Iraq government have pleaded with us, requesting us to ask the Indian media to show restraint. The reports are endangering the lives of nurses and other Indian citizens. By talking to nurses directly and disclosing that there are interlocutors you are endangering the lives of Indians," MEA spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin told reporters in New Delhi.
Also, on Tuesday, the MEA acknowledged that there have been firing and bombings in the vicinity of the hospital. "The nurses have taken refuge in the basement... At present they remain safe and unharmed," Akbaruddin said.
But the source told dna that the nurses were asked to to go down to the basement by the ISIS militants after the hospital compound was "bombed" for the third consecutive night. "The nurses were told the basement was far more safe."
"For a while the nurses returned to their rooms as the rebels wanted to pray and break their Ramzan fast in the basement," said the source. "The nurses fear if they are taken out of the hospital, they will be at the mercy of the militants."
Tikrit has come under intense Iraqi forces's fire over the past week. The Iraqi forces are accompanied by bands of Shia militia who have a score to settle with the Islamic State fighters.