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India's Iraq crisis deepens as ISIL takes 46 nurses hostage

The number of Indian hostages in Iraq has shot up to 85 as the 46 Indian nurses have now been taken hostage by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants.

The Ministry of External Affairs has not acknowledged this fact and MEA spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin, in his daily briefing on the security situation in Iraq for Indians, said around 4.30 pm on Thursday that the Indian government was in constant touch with the nurses "including 10 minutes before I came".

Threatened in Iraq. AFP

Threatened in Iraq. AFP

Just about three hours later, the situation changed dramatically. Phones of all the Indian nurses are now switched off, a typical hostage situation.

Though the MEA spokesperson refrained from describing the nurses as captives, it is a matter of time when the Indian government will acknowledge this hard fact. Akbaruddin said thus about the nurses: "They are on the move right now. They agreed to shift for their own safety… It is not a situation of our choice. It is a difficult situation."

This is a major blow to the Indian government. Worse, New Delhi does not know what the captors want as not a single official has thus far said what their demands are. Officials have also said that there has not been any ransom demand from the captors.

The MEA officials were never in direct telephonic touch with the 40 Indian construction workers who were taken hostage in Mosul by the ISIS on 8 June. One of the 40 managed to escape from captivity and is safe. Significantly, the nurses too have now been shifted to Mosul where the other 39 Indian hostages are being kept.

The nurses, on the other hand, were in constant touch with not only the officials of Iraq and India but also with their relatives and even with Indian media.

In many ways, the Indian media, particularly TV news channels, has been responsible for the delicate situation the nurses are in at present. In their zeal to cover the nurses’ predicament by their live 'phonos'—a Peepli Live kind of conduct—the media dented their security giving their exact whereabouts in much the same way as TV channels did during the 2008 Mumbai terror strikes.

The writing was clearly on the wall on Wednesday when the Amnesty International issued a press release saying the stranded Indian nurses had told the NGO that armed men have taken control of a government hospital where they are employed, approximately 180 kilometers northwest of Baghdad. Three of the 46 nurses in the hospital said all of them were forced to move to the basement of the hospital on Monday night (30 June) after bombs went off inside the hospital compound.

One of the nurses remarked thus to Amnesty International India on the phone on Tuesday (1 July): "Earlier the bombs were being thrown outside the hospital. After Monday evening’s bombing, we are very scared. The threat is much more real. The hospital was filled with smoke after a few wings of the hospital, not far from the nurses’ quarters, were bombed. On Tuesday morning, the bombing stopped. So we moved to the second floor and are staying in eight rooms. The ground floor rooms are now filled with armed men. They told us that they won’t harm us. But they are carrying guns. We are feeling threatened."

In terms of gravity, this is the Kandahar-type crisis and challenge for the Narendra Modi government. Earlier the relatives of kidnapped construction workers had descended on New Delhi from Punjab. Now the family members of kidnapped nurses are likely to troop to New Delhi from Kerala.

This will inevitably increase the pressure on the central government, just as it happened during the Kandahar crisis when Indian Airlines plane was hijacked from Kathmandu and taken to Kandahar in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. This time also the enemy of India happens to be Sunni militants; only their names and faces have changed.

The writer is a Firstpost Contributing Editor who tweets @Kishkindha.