The ministry of external affairs confirmed on Wednesday that 40 Indian construction workers had been kidnapped in Northern Iraq.
The issue appears to be prime minister Narendra Modi's first major challenge. A government source said Modi was monitoring the situation and had tasked the MEA to work out operational details with the defence ministry and private airline companies to rescue other Indians from Iraq.
External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj who was hosting Russian deputy PM Dmitry O Rogozin here on Wednesday took time out to chair the crisis management cell and asked former Indian envoy to Iraq Suresh Reddy to return to Baghdad to reinforce the mission. Reddy had completed his tenure and was waiting in Delhi for his next appointment. He is an old Iraq hand and has been sent to establish contact with the kidnapped Indian workers.
MEA spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said no ransom calls had been received. Giving out details about the kidnapping of the workers, the MEA spokesperson assured that they will not leave any stone unturned and will work with all possible agencies to find the kidnapped Indians. "The contingency plan unit is working in Delhi for other options," he said.
The government said they were in touch with humanitarian agencies and the Iraqi government. According to the MEA, there are more than 18,000 Indians working mostly in the southern and Kurdish region of Iraq, which is safe. There are only 100 Indians, which includes 46 nurses, in the affected Northern region. Some 200 Indians in Najaf and their Turkish company is helping them leave Iraq. They will leave on Friday.
The extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has taken control of most of northern region and are advancing towards capital Baghdad. Government sources said though as per latest reports Iraqi forces aided by Americans have halted the militants' march, there is no guarantee that they can be stopped for a long time.
Government sources here said it was risky to use road transport to evacuate Indians from the affected regions. The government has informed the navy as well as air force to remain on stand-by. Air force planes and private aircraft might be used to evacuate stranded Indians. The possibility of airlifting citizens with helicopters from Mosul and Tikrit too has been discussed. Sources here said negotiations were on with friendly countries (United States) to allow the naval warship currently on anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Eden to visit any of the Northern Iraqi ports.
The Indian embassy plans to transport Indians to Erbil, 88km from Mosul, and then fly them back to India. A few Indians have already been airlifted from the Iraqi city of Samarra, 25km north of Baghdad.
Many of the kidnapped construction workers are from Punjab. They were working in an Iraqi construction company, Tariq-al-Noor-ul-Huda.
Indian Shias volunteer to fight in Iraq: Some 5,000 Indian Shia Muslims have vowed to fight Sunni militants in Iraq. Members of Anjuman Haidari, Majlis Ulama-e-Hind and Hussaini Tigers, who held a recruiting camp at Jantar Mantar, however, said the volunteers will defend the sacred Shia shrines in the Southern Iraqi cities of Karbala, Najaf, Kadhimiya and Samarra.
Nair Ali Naqvi, an office bearer of the Delhi-based Anjuman Haidari, said they have patronage of leading Lucknow-based Shia cleric Maulana Kalbe-e-Javed, who supported home minister Rajnath Singh in the elections. Naqvi told dna that so far recruits from Hyderabad, J&K, Lucknow and even from Kolkata have registered themselves. He refused to call them "fighters", but "volunteers" out to protect their shrines against terrorists.
Officials at the Iraqi embassy said they didn't favour the idea of recruiting people to fight in Iraq. "The Iraqi government has issued appeals for help from governments, but will not encourage individuals and non-government groups to come to Iraq for fighting," said an official.