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Iraq live: Nurses probably being taken to Mosul, says sources

8.23 pm: Nurses probably being taken to Mosul, says sources

Latest reports suggest that the Indian nurses, hailing from Kerala, in Tikrit believe that they are being taken to Mosul.

CNN-IBN reported sources as saying that the nurses themselves have said they believe they are being taken to Mosul in Iraq.

7.21 pm: Nurses' kin worried after reports emerged of them being moved

Reports that Keralite nurses stranded in Tikrit in Iraq had been "moved" from the hospital where they were working caused deep concern among relatives in Kerala despite assurances from authorities that they were safe.

Father of one of them in Kottayam, who does not want to be identified fearing it would risk his daughter's safety, said his daughter telephoned him this afternoon and told him that she and other nurses were being boarded in a vehicle of the rebels.

He said they suspected that they were being moved in a vehicle by rebels.

There were also reports of some of them having sustained minor injuries, he said.

He said after conveying this information, his daughter said she was disconnecting as their takers had asked them to switch off the phones.

"My only relief is that my daughter told me that their takers told them that they are being moved for their safety," he said.

Concern over the safe evacuation of the nurses had soared in the last couple days.

5.10 pm: Situation in Iraq is quite difficult at the moment, says Chandy

Taking initiative to secure the nurses of his state stranded in Iraq, Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said, "The MEA has assured all necessary steps to locate the nurses. We cannot reveal all the details because we need to ensure the safety of the nurses in Iraq."

Admitting that the situation is not conducive, Chandy said, "The situation in Iraq is quite difficult at the moment, we are limited by the situation. The Red Cross has been trying to supply food and water to those stranded in Iraq. UN is also not effective on the ground in Iraq."

Confirming that there were injuries to the nurses when a blast reportedly happened near them, he said, "Three of the nurses are injured according to our sources."

4:30 pm: Have been in touch with nurses as they moved: MEA

"All I know is that they are on the road. I do not know what their destinations are," Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin told the media today.

"Short while ago, the Indian nurses were moved to another location. MEA and the embassy in Iraq has been in regular touch with them. There have been some injuries but they are all safe and unharmed," Akbaruddin said.

"The MEA also said that the nurses agreed to move out of "concern for their safety".

When asked whether the nurses were now hostages of ISIL, Akbaruddin said, "In zones of conflict there is no free will. In a war like situation everything is in a flux."

Addressing the issue of the 39 abducted construction workers are "unharmed but still in captivity," Akbaruddin confirmed.

Meanwhile, nearly 900 Indians in non-conflict zones have been given tickets to fly out to India, Akbaruddin said. "There are 25 officials in Najaf, Karbala and Basrah including three in Baghdad who are assisting Indians who wish to depart from Iraq," he said.

4:00 pm: Militants move some Indian nurses to unknown location
"ISIL militants have moved the 46 Indian nurses and five Bangladeshis out of the hospital in Tikrit where they have been stranded for the last two weeks. Ministry of External Affairs also confirmed this development, CNN-IBN reported.

According to the report, some of the nurses spoke  to their families and confirmed they're being moved by bus to Mosul. Militants also confiscated their mobile phones.

Kerala CM Oomen Chandy confirmed that they have been moved and added that there was a blast outside the bus in which they were being transported. Five nurses have been injured in the blast, Hindustan Times reported.

3:27 pm: Two Syrian towns fall to ISIL as Al Qaeda militants withdraw

Fighters from al Qaeda's Nusra Front withdrew from two towns in eastern Syria on Thursday, leaving most of the border province of Deir al-Zor under the control of advancing forces of the Islamic State, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

It said the Nusra Front pulled out of Mayadin and Shuhail, the group's regional stronghold, while local tribal fighters had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, which has also swept through Sunni Muslim provinces in Iraq, Reuters reported.

The Observatory, a British-based monitoring group, said the Islamic State, previously called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), now controls an area of Syria five times the size of neighbouring Lebanon.

3:14 pm: Kurdish prez to address parliament on holding referendum to secede from Iraq

Iraqi Kurdish regional president Massud Barzani will address the Kurdish parliament Thursday on holding a referendum in disputed areas, after vowing to hold a plebiscite within months, an MP said.

Farsat Sufi, a lawmaker in the Kurdish parliament, said the referendum would be on Article 140, the section of the Iraqi constitution that provides for a vote on whether disputed northern territory will join the Kurdish region or remain under direct federal control, AFP reported.

But Barzani also told the BBC this week that a referendum on regional independence would be held within months.

The Kurdish leader would also urge parliament to speed up the approval of a law establishing an independent electoral commission for the region, said Sufi, an MP from Barzani's party.

At present, elections across Iraq are organised by the country's Independent High Electoral Commission, including votes in Kurdish areas.

Federal security forces abandoned positions in a swathe of northern territory when faced with a Sunni militant offensive that began June 9, allowing Iraqi Kurds to take control of disputed areas they have long wanted to incorporate into their autonomous region over Baghdad's strong objections.

Barzani has previously declared that the territory dispute is finished, meaning Kurdish control of the areas would continue.

But Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Wednesday dismissed that assertion.

"No one has the right to exploit the events that took place to impose a fait accompli, as happened in some of the actions of the Kurdistan region. This is rejected."

3:09 pm: Militants tells Indian nurses to leave, say they can't guarantee their safety

ISIS militants have told the Indian nurses to leave Tikrit for an undisclosed location in Mosul and allegedly set a deadline for them to leave, Times Now reported. As per the report, the militants allegedly told the 46 nurses that they can no longer guarantee their safety.

ISIL members told the nurses to move and even arranged buses for them go to Mosul from the hospital in Tikrit, where they are currently stranded, NDTV reported.

7:40 am: No threat to Indian nurses in Tikrit, says Red Crescent 

After reports emerged claiming Indian nurses in Tikrit were being asked to leave for Mosul with ISIL militants, international humanitarian organisation Red Crescent told CNN-IBN that there was no threat to the nurses stranded in a hospital in Tikrit.

Yaseen Ahmed Abbas, president of Red Crescent told CNN-IBN that the nurses were safe and unharmed.

Iraqi forces gained control of all the roads leading up to Tikrit yesterday as Russian fighter jets joined the offensive.

Meanwhile, Minister of External Affair Sushma Swaraj met with US senator John McCain and discussed the ongoing Iraq crisis with him.

7:20 am: President Obama discusses Iraq crisis with Saudi Arabian King Abdullah

US President Barack Obama discussed Iraq and the violent rise of a Sunni insurgent group there in a telephone call on Wednesday with Saudi Arabian King Abdullah, the White House said.

Obama thanked the Saudi king for his $500 million pledge to help Iraqis displaced by an upsurge in violence as militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant seized provinces in the north and west of Iraq, it said in a statement.

Abdullah, leader of the world's top oil exporter, vowed last week to act against potential "terrorist threats" that have torn Iraq apart in recent weeks. - Reuters

--End of updates for 2 July--

7:30 pm: MEA says Indian nurses are safe 

The government Wednesday said the 46 Indian nurses trapped in a building in Iraq's war-torn Tikrit town were safe and unharmed, and the Indian envoy has spoken with them, IANS reported.

"Our ambassador (in Iraq) has talked to them. They are unharmed, safe," external affairs ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said here.

Asked about reports that the building which houses the nurses was being guarded by gunmen of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), Akbaruddin said he would not comment on what others had put out.

Asked about reports that India was among jihad targets of the ISIS, he said: "India's safety and security is in safe hands."

Answering a question about 39 Indians in captivity in Mosul, Akbaruddin said they were unharmed.

He said the "facilitation phase" to help Indian nationals wanting to return from Iraq was proceeding "satisfactorily".

1:58 pm: Armed men have seized control of hospital with Indian nurses, says Amnesty international

Indian nurses stranded in Iraq allegedly told Amnesty International India that armed men have taken control of the government hospital where they are employed, approximately 180 kilometres northwest of Baghdad. These armed men are suspected to be members of ISIL.

“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,” anurse told Amnesty over the phone.

“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.”

The nurses said that the Indian Ambassador to Iraq, Iraqi authorities and members of the International Committee of the Red Cross had been in touch with them on a daily basis since the fighting reached the area.

Nurses also told Amnesty that no member of the hospital management was around anymore. "Iraqi authorities used to come to the hospital to reassure us. Now they have also stopped coming. It is just us, some Bangladeshi workers who came here for some construction work and the gunmen,” another nurse said.

8:15 am: Indian nurses safe but have taken refuge in basement amid bombing: MEA

There has been bombing and firing in the vicinity of the building in Iraq's Tikrit town which houses 46 Indian nurses and they had taken refuge in basement, the government said yesterday and expressed hope that they will be evacuated safely.

External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said here that it was a "delicate situation" and Iraqi authorities had been informed about the location of nurses.

He said that despite the difficulties, the government hoped to extricate the nurses safely.

"The nurses remain safe, unharmed.... Nurses are in touch with the (Indian) mission. The mission is advising them," he said.

Akbaruddin also called upon the media to be restrained in its coverage, saying that the nurses were in the conflict zone and trying to contact them on phone to give hour by hour information was being found "intrusive" by authorities in Iraq.

He said nothing should be done that can jeopardise lives.

Referring to Indians in non-conflict areas in Iraq, he said that mobile teams were active and 233 Indians had been booked to fly out Tuesday.

He said around 1,000 of those Indian nationals who had been contacted had expressed their desire to return and almost a similar number were keen to stay back.

Asked about 39 Indians in captivity in Mosul, Akbaruddin said that they were unharmed.

He said Nepal had requested India to facilitate return of its nationals from Iraq since it does not have an embassy in the Gulf country.

"We would be assisting Nepal based on the advice of Nepal government," he said.

7:38 am: ISIL chief declares Jihad, calls Muslims worldwide to migrate to caliphate

The leader of the al-Qaeda offshoot now calling itself the Islamic State has called on Muslims worldwide to take up arms and flock to the "caliphate" it has declared on captured Syrian and Iraqi soil.

Proclaiming a "new era" in which Muslims will ultimately triumph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi issued the call to jihad - holy war - in an audio message lasting nearly 20 minutes that was posted online on Tuesday.

It was his first purported message since the group - previously known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) - proclaimed the caliphate on Sunday and declared him its leader, in an audacious bid to sweep away state borders and redraw the map of the Middle East.

Baghdadi, who has assumed the medieval title of caliph, used the message to seek to assert authority over Muslims everywhere. He called on them to rise up and avenge the alleged wrongs committed against their religion, from Central African Republic to Myanmar (Burma).

"Terrify the enemies of Allah and seek death in the places where you expect to find it," he said. "Your brothers, on every piece of this earth, are waiting for you to rescue them."

The audio message, titled "A Message to the Mujahideen and the Muslim Ummah in the Month of Ramadan," was posted online through the group's media arm. Another account affiliated to the group posted translations in English, Russian, French, German and Albanian.

"By Allah, we will take revenge, by Allah we will take revenge, even if after a while," Baghdadi said.

The audio message's authenticity could not be immediately verified, but it was carried by SITE, an authoritative US-based organisation that monitors jihadist statements, Reuters reportes.

Fighters should "embrace the chance and champion Allah's religion through jihad", Baghdadi said.

He called on Muslims to immigrate to the self-styled caliphate, saying it was their duty. In a direct, confident message, he urged them to "listen, realise and stand and free yourself from the shackles of weakness, and stand in the face of tyranny".

"Let the world know that we are living today in a new era. Whoever was heedless must now be alert. Whoever was sleeping must now awaken. Whoever was shocked and amazed must comprehend. The Muslims today have a loud, thundering statement, and possess heavy boots," said Baghdadi, according to the posted translation.

"They have a statement that will cause the world to hear and understand the meaning of terrorism, and boots that will trample the idol of nationalism, destroy the idol of democracy and uncover its deviant nature."

While ISIL's power grab may appeal to many militants, there have already been signs of dissent. Some Islamist groups fighting in Syria have rejected the announcement of the caliphate, saying its terms had not "been realised at present", and urged Muslims to avoid siding with the Islamic State. Iraq's Association of Muslim Scholars, which was formed to represent minority Sunnis, said in a statement: "Any group that announces a state or an Islamic emirate... under these conditions is not in the interest of Iraq and its unity."

7:26 am: ISIL militants seize key town on Iraq-Syria border

ISIL on Tuesday seized a strategic eastern Syrian town along the Iraqi border following days of intense clashes with rival jihadi group, IANS reported.

The ISIL captured Bukamal town in Syria's Deir al-Zour province after an "intense" battle with the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, Xinhua reported citing the London-based watchdog Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The ISIL has started advancing towards al-Shahel town, a stronghold of the Nusra Front, in the eastern Syrian countryside of Deir al-Zour, the observatory said.

7:18 am: Iraq lifts social media ban

Iraq has lifted a 17-day social media ban imposed to disrupt the communications of armed militants who have seized much of its west and north, although about 20 news websites remain blocked, industry sources said on Tuesday.

One source said that Iraq had come under pressure from foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to end the ban but the state telecoms company did not explain why it had done so, Reuters reported.

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has used social media to publicise its agenda.

The revolt, which began with the 10 June capture of Mosul, prompted state-run Iraq Telecommunications and Post Company (ITPC) to block some social media platforms on 13 June, Reuters reported last month.

These included Facebook, Twitter, Skype and YouTube.

The ban was lifted on Monday, according to Martin Frank, chief executive of Sulaymaniyah-based Internet provider IQ Networks, and three industry sources who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

ITPC, which owns almost all fixed line networks outside Kurdistan, and the Ministry of Communications did not respond to requests for comment.

About 20 news websites, including those of Qatar’s Al Jazeera and Saudi-owned television station Al Arabiya are still blocked, two sources said.

7:00 am: Sunnis, Kurds walk out of parliament as Shi'ites fail to name Maliki's replacement

Sunnis and Kurds walked out of the first session of Iraq's new parliament on Tuesday after Shi'ites failed to name a prime minister to replace Nouri al-Maliki, dimming any prospect of an early national unity government to save Iraq from collapse.

Despite the urgency, the Iraqi parliament's first session since its election in April collapsed when Sunnis and Kurds refused to return from a recess to the parliamentary chamber after Shi'ites failed to name a prime minister.

Parliament is not likely to meet again for at least a week, leaving Iraq in political limbo and Maliki clinging to power as a caretaker, rejected by Sunnis and Kurds.

Under a governing system put in place after the removal of Saddam Hussein, the prime minister has always been a member of the Shi'ite majority, the speaker of parliament a Sunni and the largely ceremonial president a Kurd.

The Shi'ite bloc known as the National Alliance, in which Maliki's State of Law coalition is the biggest group, has met repeatedly in recent days to bargain over the premiership but has so far been unable either to endorse Maliki for a third term or to name an alternative.

Iraq's PM Nouri al-Maliki in this file photo. AP

Iraq's PM Nouri al-Maliki in this file photo. AP

Fewer than a third of lawmakers returned from the recess. Sunni parties said they would not put forward their candidate for speaker until the Shi'ites pick a premier. The Kurds have also yet to nominate a president.

Osama al-Nujaifi, a leading Sunni politician, former speaker and strong foe of Maliki, warned that "without a political solution, the sound of weapons will be loud, and the country will enter a black tunnel".

He said his bloc did not have a candidate for a speaker so far and was waiting to see who the National Alliance would nominate for prime minister.

"If there is a new policy with a new prime minister, we will deal with them positively. Otherwise the country will go from bad to worse," Nujaifi said.

Shi'ite lawmakers sought to shift blame to the Sunni and Kurdish blocs, saying the premiership was the last position to be named in the constitutionally-defined process.

Mehdi al-Hafidh, parliament's oldest member who is tasked by the constitution with chairing the legislature's meetings until a speaker is named, said the next session would be held in a week, if agreement was possible after discussions.

End of updates for 1 July

2:23 pm: More than 2,400 dead in Iraq in June, says UN

More than 2,400 Iraqis, most of them civilians, were killed in June as Sunni militants swept through the north triggering the country's worst violence in years, the United Nations said on Tuesday.

The United Nations said "acts of violence and terrorism" killed at least 2,417 Iraqis and wounded 2,287 more in June. Of those killed, 1,531 were civilians, it added.

"The staggering number of civilian casualties in one month points to the urgent need for all to ensure that civilians are protected," the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Iraq Nickolay Mladenov said in a statement.

Newly elected Iraqi lawmakers met in parliament on Tuesday under pressure to name a unity government to keep the country from splitting apart under the onslaught.

"As large parts of the country remain under the control of ISIL and armed groups, it is imperative that national leaders work together to foil attempts to destroy the social fabric of Iraqi society," Mladenov said.

“What can be achieved through a constitutional political process cannot be achieved through an exclusively military response. Security must be restored, but the root causes of violence must be addressed."

The statement said Baghdad province was the worst affected, with 1,090 civilians wounded and killed, followed by Nineveh province, where Mosul fell to insurgents on June 10.

1:58 pm: Iraq's newly elected parliament opens first session

Iraq's newly-elected parliament opened its first session on Tuesday to begin forming a new government following 30 April elections.

Premier Nouri al-Maliki's bloc won by far the most seats in the polls, but the incumbent's re-election bid has been battered by a Sunni militant offensive that has overrun swathes of five provinces north and west of Baghdad.

Parliament must first elect a speaker and then a president, who will then charge the leader of the biggest parliamentary bloc with forming a government.

Well-known figures such as former vice president Adel Abdel Mehdi, ex-premier Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and ex-deputy premier Ahmed Chalabi are all being touted alongside backroom power brokers, such as Maliki's current chief of staff Tareq Najim, as possible replacements for the premier.

But MPs interviewed by AFP from across the political and communal spectrum said that even if Maliki were booted from power, choosing a new premier could take a month or more.

1:27 pm: Three injured in a mortar attack near Shiite shrine, north of Baghdad

 A mortar attack near a revered Shiite Muslim shrine north of Baghdad wounded three people, officials said Tuesday, as Iraq seeks to repel Sunni militants who have overrun swathes of territory, AFP reported.

Though the mortars did not damage the Al-Askari shrine in the predominantly-Sunni city of Samarra, which lies in Salaheddin province north of Baghdad, the attack indicates the proximity of militant groups to the holy site.

The mortars struck around 200 metres (yards) from the shrine at 11:00 pm (2000 GMT) Monday and left three people wounded, according to security and medical officials.

It has been the target of militant attacks before, with the authorities fearing that a successful strike against it could ignite a full-blown sectarian war, as was the case in February 2006 when Al-Qaeda destroyed the shrine's golden dome.

The shrine is where Ali al-Hadi and his son Hassan al-Askari, descendents of Prophet Mohammed and the 10th and 11th of 12 Shiite imams, are buried, and is frequented by throngs of Shiite pilgrims from around the world.

Though they initially wilted in the face of a militant onslaught that began on June 9 and overran several key towns and cities, Iraqi forces regrouped and managed to repel an assault on Samarra.

1:00 pm: Iraqi parliament convenes to choose new government

Iraq's newly-elected parliament convenes today to begin choosing a government, with premier Nouri al-Maliki's bid for a third term battered by a Sunni militant offensive threatening to tear Iraq apart.

World leaders and senior clerics have urged Iraq's fractious politicians to unite in the face of the militant onslaught, which has killed more than 2,000 people, displaced hundreds of thousands and polarised the country's Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish populations.

Iraq's Shiite premier has been criticised by his domestic opponents as being sectarian and for consolidating power, leading to resentment among the minority Sunni population and spawning the militant advance.

The offensive, which Iraq's security forces have struggled to hold back, has undermined Maliki's case for re-election after April's election initially left him in the driver's seat, analysts say.

"This has become a much more competitive race for the premiership position," said Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa director for the Eurasia Group consultancy.

9:40 am: ISIL's declaration of a caliphate has no meaning, says US

The United States said on Monday that the declaration by Sunni militants of an "Islamic caliphate" on territory they have seized in Iraq and Syria has "no meaning", AFP reported.

"We have seen these types of words from ISIL before," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters, referring to militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

"This declaration has no meaning for the people in Iraq and Syria," she said, adding that the militants -- who have now renamed their group the Islamic State -- were just trying "to control people by fear."

8:10 am: US to send another 300 troops to ramp up security of it's embassy, citizens in Iraq

The US is sending another 300 troops to Iraq to beef up security at the US Embassy and elsewhere in the Baghdad area to protect US citizens and property, officials said Monday.

That raises the total US troop presence in Iraq to approximately 750, the Pentagon said.

The State Department, meanwhile, announced that it was temporarily moving an unspecified "small number" of embassy staff in Baghdad to US consulates in the northern city of Irbil and the southern city of Basra. This is in addition to some embassy staff moved out of Baghdad earlier this month,

Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the Baghdad embassy "will be fully equipped to carry out" its mission.

The White House announced that President Barack Obama had directed that 200 troops be sent to reinforce security at the embassy, its support facilities and Baghdad International Airport, Associated Press reported.

The Pentagon said the 200 arrived Sunday and Monday.

"The presence of these additional forces will help enable the embassy to continue its critical diplomatic mission and work with Iraq on challenges they are facing as they confront Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant," the Pentagon's press secretary, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, said in a written statement.

Obama notified House and Senate leaders in a letter on Monday of the additional forces heading to Iraq. Officials said they bring a detachment of helicopters and drone aircraft to improve airfield and travel route security in Baghdad.

Obama has ruled out sending combat troops back into Iraq. He said the extra troops will stay in Iraq until security improves so that the reinforcements are no longer needed.

Kirby said another 100 troops, who had been on standby in the Middle East since mid-June, also will move into Baghdad to provide security and logistics support.

That raises to about 470 the number of US troops providing security in Baghdad.

Those forces are separate from the teams of up to 300 US military advisers that Obama authorized for deployment to Iraq earlier in June. Of those 300, about 180 had arrived as of Monday, the Pentagon said. They are assessing the state of Iraqi security forces and coordinating with Iraqi authorities.

The US also has a permanent group of about 100 military personnel in the Office of Security Cooperation, at the US Embassy, to coordinate US military sales.

7:30 am: Don't want to see tattered and divided Iraq: Turkey

Turkey's deputy prime minister says his country does not want to see a "tattered and divided" Iraq.

Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc's comments Monday came a day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the establishment of an independent Kurdistan in Iraq, following territorial gains by a jihadi group in Iraq, reported The Associated Press.

Arinc voiced support for Iraq's territorial integrity and said "foreign forces" should leave the country.

Turkey has built close trade ties with the Iraq's Kurdish regional government, recently becoming a conduit for Iraqi Kurdish oil shipments. But Turkey fears that an independent Kurdistan in Iraq would inspire its own Kurdish population.

Arinc said 80 Turkish hostages seized 11 June by the jihadis in Mosul were well and hoped they would be released during the month of Ramadan.

7:00 am: Syrian rebels call ISIL declared caliphate 'null and void'

Syrian rebels, including the main Islamist factions, said Monday the creation of a caliphate by the Islamic State (IS) was "null and void", AFP reported.

"We see that the announcement by the rejectionists of a caliphate is null and void, legally and logically," the groups said in a statement, using a pejorative term to refer to the extremist Islamic State.

End of updates for 30 June

5.00 pm: India plans to bring back 600 citizens from Iraq, says MEA

The Ministry of External affairs has today said that India plans to evacuate 600 of its citizens from strife-torn Iran.

"600 Indians will be brought back from Iraq. 60 have left today from Najaf," said the MEA and added, "Arrangements are being made to bring back Indians. India wants nurses in Tikrit to leave to avoid being caught in the crossfire."

3:31 pm: Declaration of Caliphate shows ISIL is a global threat, says Iraqi army spokesperson

Militant group Islamic State's declaration of a caliphate in lands seized this month across Iraq and Syria is a message that the group has become a threat to all countries, Iraqi army spokesman Qassim Atta told Reuters on Monday.

"This declaration is a message by Islamic State not only to Iraq or Syria but to the region and the world. The message is that Islamic State has become a threat to all countries," he said.

"I believe all the countries, once they read the declaration will change their attitudes because it orders everybody to be loyal to it," he said.

3:20 pm: Syrian rebel factions clash with ISIL in border town

Syrian activists say heavy clashes are underway between several rebel factions and an al-Qaida breakaway group over control of a border crossing with Iraq, The Associated Press reported.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says Monday's fighting between rebel groups and rivals in the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is concentrated in the town of Boukamal on the border between Syria and Iraq.

The jihadist group, which on Sunday declared the establishment of an Islamic caliphate, controls much of northeastern Syria. In Iraq, it has recently captured cities and towns as well as border crossings, effectively erasing the frontier.

The group says its Islamic state stretches from northern Syria to the Iraqi province of Diyala northeast of Baghdad, and has called on all Muslims worldwide to pledge allegiance to it.

8:20 am: ISIL declare captured regions as "caliphate"

Jihadists fighting in Syria and Iraq announced Sunday the establishment of a "caliphate", referring to the system of rule that ended nearly 100 years ago with the fall of the Ottomans.

In an audio recording distributed online, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) declared its chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi "the caliph" and "leader for Muslims everywhere".

Picture shows Iraqi volunteers who joined the army to fight against ISIL. Reuters image

Picture shows Iraqi volunteers who joined the army to fight against ISIL. Reuters image

"The Shura (council) of the Islamic State met and discussed this issue (of the caliphate)... The Islamic State decided to establish an Islamic caliphate and to designate a caliph for the state of the Muslims," said ISIL spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani.

"The jihadist cleric Baghdadi was designated the caliph of the Muslims," said Adnani.

Baghdadi "has accepted this allegiance, and has thus become the leader for Muslims everywhere".

"The words 'Iraq' and 'the Levant' have been removed from the name of the Islamic State in official papers and documents," Adnani said, describing the caliphate as "the dream in all the Muslims' hearts" and "the hope of all jihadists".

Ever since the Prophet Mohammed's death, a caliph was designated "the prince" or emir "of the believers".

After the first four caliphs who succeeded Mohammed, the caliphate lived its golden age in the Omayyad empire from the year 661 to 750, and then under the Abbasids, from 750 to 1517.

It was abolished when the Ottoman empire collapsed in 1924.

07:56 am: Kuwait send urgent humanitarian aid to Iraqi refugees

Kuwait said on Sunday it is sending urgent humanitarian aid to thousands of Iraqis who have been displaced by ongoing fighting in the neighbouring Arab country.

"The council of ministers decided to send urgent humanitarian aid to Iraqis who have been displaced as a result of deteriorating security situation," the cabinet said in a statement.

The statement said the aid would be distributed through the United Nations. It did not specify the amount of aid.

International organisations have urged the establishment of humanitarian corridors to provide aid amid the fighting, with 1.2 million people having been displaced by unrest this year in Iraq.

Fighting is raging in Iraq following a lightning offensive this month by jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and other militants that has killed more than 1,000 people and displaced tens of thousands.

07:26 am: Russian jets arrive as Iraqi forces fight back

Iraq received the first batch of Sukhoi warplanes from Russia as it pressed a counter-attack on Sunday against a Sunni militant onslaught that threatens to tear the country apart.

Witnesses reported waves of government air strikes Sunday on the city of Tikrit, overrun by the insurgents when they swept across vast areas of north and west Iraq earlier this month.

World leaders, alarmed by the pace of the reverses in Iraq, have meanwhile urged a speeding up of government formation following April's general election, warning that the conflict, driven by sectarian divides, cannot be resolved militarily.

The newly-purchased Su-25 aircraft are expected to be pressed into service as soon as possible, bolstering Iraq's air power as it combats the insurgency that has killed more than 1,000 people and sparked a humanitarian crisis with hundreds of thousands displaced.

An Iraqi official said that pilots from executed dictator Saddam Hussein's air force would fly the planes.

Su-25s are designed for ground attack, meaning they will be useful for Iraqi forces trying to root out militants, led by jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, from a string of towns and cities they have seized.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Thursday announced that Baghdad was buying more than a dozen Sukhoi aircraft from Russia in a deal that could be worth up to $500 million (368 million euros).

While Washington has begun sending military advisers to help Iraqi commanders and is flying armed drones over Baghdad, Iraqi officials have voiced frustration that multi-billion dollar deals for US-made F-16s and Apache helicopters have not been expedited.

Iraqi forces have for days been pressing a campaign to retake Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, which fell to the militants on 11 June.

End of updates for 29 June

10:00 am: ISIL militants crucify 8 in Syria

A jihadist group in Syria has publicly executed and crucified nine men, eight of them rebels fighting both President Bashar al-Assad's regime and the jihadists, a monitor said on Sunday.

The report comes amid fierce clashes on the outskirts of Damascus between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is spearheading a major offensive in Iraq, and rebels, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

"ISIL executed eight men in Deir Hafer in the east of Aleppo province" on Saturday because they belonged to rebel groups that had fought against the jihadists as well as Assad's forces, it said.

ISIL then "crucified them in the main square of the village, where their bodies will remain for three days", the Britain-based monitor said.

-AFP

End of updates for 28 June

4:35 pm Syrian rebels, al-Qaeda fight ISIL in Iraq town

Syrian rebels and Al-Qaeda launched a counter-offensive Saturday to expel the Islamist State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from Albu Kamal town on the Iraq border, a monitor said.

The operation came just days after some fighters from Al-Qaeda's Syria franchise, Al-Nusra Front, pledged loyalty to ISIL in Albu Kamal, after it led an offensive in Iraq and seized chunks of territory, AFP reported.

But not all Al-Nusra fighters defected and those who refused to submit to the jihadist group joined forces with other Syrian rebel groups to launch the counter-offensive.

"Fighting has raged since late last night in Albu Kamal between Al-Nusra Front and Islamist rebels on one side and ISIL on the other," said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Al-Nusra fronts and its allies captured on Saturday two ISIL positions in Alby Kamal, a key town in the oil-rich eastern province of Deir Ezzor, said the Britain-based Observatory.

Al-Nusra and other rebel groups in Syria have been locked in fierce fighting with ISIL since January that has killed thousands of fighters.

1:42 pm: ISIL militants crucify one of their own over graft allegations in Syria

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on Friday executed and crucified one of its own men for corruption in Syria, a watchdog and jihadist sites said.

Photographs posted on websites showed the body and bloodied head of a bearded man with a placard reading: "Guilty: Abu Adnan al-Anadali. Sentence: execution and three days of crucifixion. Motive: extorting money at checkpoints by accusing drivers of apostasy."

The text is signed by "The prince of believers", thought to refer to ISIL chief Abu Baqr al-Baghdadi.

Before being crucified, the man was killed by three bullets to the head at Bab in the north of Aleppo province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Mainstream Syrian rebels and the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front accuse the jihadists of ISIL of responsibility for a string of atrocities.

- AFP report

10: 15 am: Iraqi forces battle militants in a bid to retake Tikrit; Kurds declare autonomy

Iraqi forces fought for a strategic university campus in Tikrit Friday and bombarded the city in an effort to retake it from Sunni Arab insurgents threatening to tear the country apart, AFP reported.

The military operation came as the top Shiite cleric urged the country's leaders to unite, after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki conceded political measures are needed to defeat the jihadist-led offensive that has killed more than 1,000 people and overrun major parts of five provinces.

In further fallout from the crisis, the president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region declared there was no going back on Kurdish self-rule in disputed territory, including ethnically divided northern oil city Kirkuk, now defended against the militants by Kurdish fighters.

International agencies meanwhile raised alarm bells over the humanitarian consequences of the fighting, with up to 10,000 people having fled a northern Christian town in recent days and 1.2 million displaced by unrest in Iraq this year.

Iraqi forces swooped into Tikrit University by helicopter on Thursday, and a police major said that there were periodic clashes on the campus on Friday.

A senior army officer said Iraqi forces were targeting militants in Tikrit with air strikes to protect forces at the university and prepare for an assault on the city.

Troops are deployed in areas around Tikrit for the attack, the officer said.

09:00 am: US says its flying armed drones over Iraq 

 The US military is flying "a few" armed drones over Baghdad to defend American troops and diplomats in the Iraqi capital if necessary, a senior US official said Friday.

"For the last 24 to 48 hours, we've started that," the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP.

The move comes after the United States deployed 180 troops as military advisers in recent days to help the Iraqi government army fend off the advance of Sunni militants, who have captured territory north and west of the capital.

But officials said the armed drones would not be used to carry out offensive strikes on Sunni extremists, a move that would require a decision by President Barack Obama.

The drones were there as a precaution to safeguard Americans in Baghdad, or what the military calls "force protection," officials said.

Obama has not ruled out air strikes but for the moment, American forces are focused on gauging the state of the Iraqi military and its adversaries on the battlefield, according to the White House and the Pentagon.

The US advisers, drawn mainly form special operations forces, along with troops sent in to bolster security for the US embassy in Baghdad, bring the total number of American military personnel to roughly 500, officials said.

The armed robotic planes are in addition to other manned and unmanned US aircraft that are conducting about 30-35 surveillance flights a day, as Washington attempts to gain a better picture of events on the ground.

The surveillance effort includes armed F-18 fighter jets, flying from the George H. W. Bush aircraft carrier in the Gulf.

End of updates for 27 June

3:45 pm: Iraq presidency convenes parliament in first step to form new government

Reuters reported Iraq's presidency has issued a decree for a parliament session on 1 July, starting the process of forming a new government amid an insurgency that threatens the country's unity.

Vice President Khudair al-Khuzai, who is acting president and a close ally of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, announced the session would be held.

3:22 pm: Villagers flee advancing militants

Hundreds of villagers fleeing advances by Sunni militants in Iraq crowded on Thursday under the morning sun at a checkpoint on the edge of the country's Kurdish-controlled territory, trying to join large numbers of displaced who have already sought shelter in the relative safety of the largely autonomous region.

Many of those seeking shelter were Shiite Turkmen from villages outside Iraq's second-largest city of Mosul, overrun earlier this month by fighters led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the Sunni extremist group that has seized large swaths of Iraq and seeks to carve out a purist Islamic enclave across both sides of the Syria-Iraq border.

Also, a new insurgent artillery offensive against Christian villages in the north of Iraq on Wednesday sent thousands of Christians fleeing from their homes, seeking sanctuary in the Kurdish enclave. The shelling of the a cluster of villages happened in an area known as Hamdaniya, 45 miles (75 kilometers) from the frontier of the self-ruled Kurdish region.

While many villagers appeared to have been granted access by daybreak, hundreds of Shiite refugees were still hoping to be let in but were facing delays because they lacked sponsors on the other side.

3:00 pm: Maliki confirms airstrikes on militants were carried out by Syria

The Syrian air force carried out air strikes targeting militants along the Iraq-Syria border this week, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told the BBC.

Maliki told the British broadcaster he "welcomed" any such strike against militants led by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, but noted Baghdad did not request the aerial raids which took place on Tuesday.

2:45 pm: British Foreign Secretary William Hague arrives in Baghdad

British Foreign Secretary William Hague made a surprise visit to Baghdad on Thursday to urge Iraqi political leaders to unite in the face of a "mortal threat" from Sunni militants.

Hague is due to meet with several leaders over the militant offensive, which he said poses "a mortal threat to the stability and territorial integrity of Iraq," according to a Foreign Office statement.

Britain has ruled out military intervention, but Hague said it would provide "diplomatic, counter-terrorism and humanitarian support." Hague is due to meet with embattled Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, Kurdish regional President Masoud Barzani and other political figures, AP reported.

9:30 am: Shi'ite cleric al-Sadr speaks against US sending military advisers

Powerful Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr Wednesday voiced opposition to US military advisers who have begun meeting with Iraqi commanders, and warned that his supporters would "shake the ground" in combatting militants.

"We will shake the ground under the feet of ignorance and extremism," he said, referring to Sunni insurgents who have overrun a swathe of territory in the past two weeks, in a televised speech from the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

He added that he only supported "providing international support from non-occupying states for the army of Iraq".

The cleric's remarks came days after fighters loyal to him paraded with weapons in the Sadr City area of north Baghdad, vowing to fight a major militant offensive that has alarmed the world and threatens to tear Iraq apart.

9:18 am: Iran secretly sending military equipment, flying surveillance drones over Iraq

Iran is secretly flying surveillance drones over Iraq and sending military equipment there to help Baghdad in its fight against Sunni insurgents, The New York Times reported.

A "small fleet" of Ababil drones was deployed to the Al Rashid airfield near Baghdad, the newspaper said on its website, citing anonymous US officials.

Tehran has also installed an intelligence unit at the airfield to intercept electronic communications between ISIS fighters and commanders.

Ababil drones, less sophisticated than US unmanned aircraft, are designed in Iran and have a nearly 10-foot (three-meter) wingspan. They are used for surveillance and are unarmed.

About a dozen officers of Iran's paramilitary Quds Force, have also been sent to Iraq to advise Iraqi commanders and help mobilize Shiite militias in the south of the country, the paper said, adding that Iran's General Qassem Suleimani recently made two trips to Iraq.

Iran is also sending two flights daily to Baghdad with 70 tons each of military equipment and supplies.

"It's a substantial amount" of material, a US official told the newspaper. "It's not necessarily heavy weaponry, but it's not just light arms and ammunition."

Tehran has massed 10 divisions of its army and its Quds Force troops along the border, ready to act if the Iraqi capital or Shiite shrines are threatened, The New York Times added.

Asked at a briefing, US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said she "can't confirm the specifics in those reports."

But she said "anyone in the region shouldn't do anything that might exacerbate sectarian divisions, that would fuel extremism inside Iraq."

The United States has for two weeks said Iranian aid for the Iraq crisis should be done in a nonsectarian way -- by pressuring the Iraqi government to adopt a national unity government and not fuel the Sunni and Shiite conflict.

We "believe Iran could play a constructive role if it's helping to send the same message to the Iraqi government that we're sending," Harf said.

9:15 am: UN triples appeal for humanitarian funding for Iraq

The United Nations has tripled its appeal for humanitarian funding for Iraq in 2014 to more than $312 million, with the country battling a fierce militant onslaught.

"The funding is urgently needed to help one million people affected by the conflict, including in Mosul and Anbar," said Wednesday Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

But he cautioned that the original $103 million appeal was "one of the least-funded appeals for 2014, with only six percent of the funding" received so far.

Speaking to journalists via video conference from Baghdad, UN special envoy for Iraq, Nikolay Mladenov, emphasized that in the country "over one million people have been displaced since January."

He said that among those who have fled their homes, some "are increasingly facing challenges in getting food, many of them dropping to one meal a day.

"The situation remains dire, our resources are overly stretched since the beginning of the year."

9:07 am: Car bomb in North Baghdad kills 5

A car bomb in a Kurdish-majority neighbourhood of the ethnically mixed northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk killed five people on Wednesday evening, security and medical officials said.

Twenty more people were wounded by the blast in the northern part of the tinderbox oil hub, which lies at the heart of territory Iraq's Kurds want to incorporate into their autonomous region over the objections of Baghdad.

The site of Wednesday's car bomb explosion in Kirkuk, Iraq. AFP image

The site of Wednesday's car bomb explosion in Kirkuk, Iraq. AFP image

Two of the dead were Kurdish security force members.

While the federal government has not abandoned its opposition to Kurdish claims, Kurdish peshmerga forces are now responsible for its external security after the army abandoned its positions in the face of a Sunni Arab militant offensive led by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

9:02 am: 12 dead in attacks south of Baghdad

A suicide bombing and shelling killed 12 people and wounded at least 23 south of Baghdad officials said, as Iraq struggles to stem a major militant offensive.

The bomber detonated explosives in a market in Mahmudiyah, while shellfire struck various areas of the town, AFP reported.

8:43 am: Kerry to visit Saudi Arabia to discuss Iraq

US Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Saudi Arabia on Friday for talks about the crisis in Iraq, AFP reported.

Speaking on the sidelines of talks at NATO, Kerry announced the extra stop on his current whirlwind tour saying he would stress "the great urgency" of the conflict in Iraq and brief Saudi King Abdullah on his visits to Baghdad and Arbil this week.

8:16 am: Militants bomb Shiite places of worship in Iraq

A senior army officer said on Wednesday that Jordan can defend itself against "any aggression" after Sunni Arab militants seized large swathes of neighbouring Iraq, AFP reported.

"The Jordanian-Iraqi borders are safe. The Jordanian armed forces are capable of defending the kingdom from any aggression," border guard commander Brigadier Saber Mahayrah told reporters as they toured the border area.

"We will not allow anyone to cross illegally," he said as armoured personnel carriers, Humvees and tanks deployed to the area.

Four military helicopters hovered over the border. Mahayrah made his remarks two days after Jordan reinforced its border. "The Jordanian army has dispatched more troops, tanks, rocket launchers and armoured personnel carriers to the border with Iraq," a security official told AFP on Monday. "The army will not tolerate any kind of infiltration."

8:00 am: Militants bomb Shiite places of worship in Iraq

Sunni militants bombed two Shiite places of worship, known as husseiniyahs, in northern Iraq on Wednesday, an official and witnesses said.

According to AFP, the two husseiniyahs in Sharikhan, north of Nineveh provincial capital Mosul, were bombed early on Wednesday, damaging the structures but causing no casualties, the sources said.

--End of updates for 26 June--

11:21 pm: 2 Indian nurses evacuated from Iraqi hospital, Gulf envoys called

India has evacuated two nurses from the conflict zone in Iraq while 46 other nurses remained stranded in a hospital in Tikrit, taking the total number of those rescued so far to 36 as all Indian envoys in Gulf countries have been called to New Delhi on June 29 to discuss the Iraqi issue and other regional complexities.

"Two nurses in the zone of conflict, other than the group of 46 (in Tikrit), have been rescued and evacuated. They are now in Karbala which is again a safe place," said Syed Akbaruddin, spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs.

Akbaruddin did not specify the place from where the two nurses were pulled out. He said the modalities of their return were being worked out and their tickets were being facilited by the MEA.

"We have got their tickets and they will fly back to India as soon as possible. They are now in the safe zone," the spokesperson said.

On those in captivity, Akbaruddin said, "those who think we are in the dark about it, we are not in the dark about it. As of today, we again have confirmation from multiple sources that these Indians remain in captivity and they are unharmed."

The MEA was in touch with a variety of sources who have confirmed this, he said.

With regard to the 46 nurses stranded in a hospital in Tikrit, the spokesperson said no one had intruded into the hospital and they have electricity and food supply.

"We are working with a variety of people on how best we can move them out from there but...it is not possible to use land routes and in such situations while we will work, we will also advise caution," the spokesperson said.

"And that we have done yesterday in terms of requests and advise to all of them to ensure that they do not move out of their places they are staying in, given the security situation there," he said.

The government meanwhile has called all Indian envoys in Gulf countries to New Delhi on June 29 to discuss the complexities of the Iraqi issue.

The spokesperson said "the External Affairs Minister (Sushma Swaraj) is monitoring the situation herself and she has now summoned all Indian Ambassodors in the Gulf to come to Delhi."

However, Indian Ambassador to Iraq Ajay Kumar will not be attending that meeting as he is required to stay in that country to "focus much greater on ground-level issues".

"We have summoned these Ambassadors to understand the complexity of the situation we are facing, both In Iraq and in the region generally," Akbaruddin said.

3:29 pm: Iraq crisis won't affect oil prices: Centre

The Centre today said the situation in Iraq was a matter of concern and hoped that the turmoil in the Gulf country will not affect the oil supplies to India.

"The new issue of concern is Iraq. Our oil pipeline comes from Southern Iraq. So far the terrorist have not targeted this pipeline but the government is keeping a close watch on the issue," Minister of State for Defence Rao Inderjit Singh told reporters here.

"We are hopeful that the situation in Iraq improves and our oil supplies are not affected," Singh, who laid a wreath at the War Memorial at Badamibagh Cantonment here, said.

3:04 pm: Al-Qaeda joins hands with ISIL

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ruled out forming a national emergency government to confront a Sunni militant offensive that has overrun large parts of the country as per an AFP report.

"The call to form a national emergency government is a coup against the constitution and the political process," Maliki said in a televised address.

"The dangerous goals of forming a national emergency government are not hidden.

Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki. AP image

Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki. AP image

"It is an attempt by those who are against the constitution to eliminate the young democratic process and steal the votes of the voters," said the Iraqi leader.

Maliki's electoral bloc won by far the most seats in April 30 parliamentary elections with 92, nearly three times as many as the next biggest party, and the incumbent himself tallied 720,000 personal votes, also far and away the most.

But he fell short of a majority in Iraq's Council of Representatives, and has had to court the support of rivals in order to form a government.

2:12 pm: Al-Qaeda joins hands with ISIL

Al-Qaeda's Syrian offshoot on Wednesday made an oath of loyalty to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant at a key town on the Iraqi border, AFP reported.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the merger is significant because it opens the way for ISIL to take control of both sides of the border at Albu Kamal in Syria and Al-Qaim in Iraq, where the jihadist group has led a major offensive this month.

1:37 pm: All options to rescue Indians being considered: Rajnath Singh

Home Minister Rajnath Singh today said that the government was considering all options to rescue citizens stranded in Iraq. "We are looking into all options for rescue of Indians stranded in Iraq," he said.

8:37 am: Will foot the bill for the return of nurses: Kerala government

The Kerala government is ready to pay for the return of its nurses stranded in strife-torn Iraq if the Centre does not foot the bill, a minister told the state assembly Tuesday.

"The Centre should meet the expenses of their return journey and if it does not happen, then the state government is ready to bear it," said state Minister for Diaspora KC Joseph. He also said there are reports from some place in Iraq that some of the nurses have salary dues.

--End of updates for 24 June--

5.02 pm: Abducted Indians still in captivity, but unhurt, says MEA

Spokesperson of the Minsitry of External Affairs Syed Akbaruddin today said that the abducted Indians were still in captivity, but they were safe.

"The abducted Indians in Iraq remain in captivity but have not been hurt. We are in touch with the 46 nurses, and I can confirm that they are all safe," Akbaruddin said.

He said that government had set up helplines in the strife-torn country. "Our helplines in Baghdad will be working 24x7. We have evacuated 17 more Indians.They are now in Baghdad and will return to India soon."

"We are telling Indian nationals they can avail commercial flights if they wish to leave Iraq, will provide assistance," he said and added, "We will set up offices in Najaf, Karbala and Basra to assist Indian nationals."

He also said that India and Iraq would set up a Joint Committee, which would handle issues immigration issues and facilitate evacuation.

"On our side there will be officials from the Embassy, on the Iraqi side there will be officials from the Home and Interior Ministry relating to immigration, so that those Indian nationals who may have problems relating to their immigration status can be facilitated and assisted to travel if they so desire to travel," he said.

3:00 pm: 19 killed in airstrikes in Baiji in Northern Iraq

Iraqi air strikes in multiple areas of the town of Baiji north of Baghdad killed at least 19 people on Tuesday, officials said.

The raids, which began early on Tuesday, also wounded at least 17, they said, AFP reported.

There was also fighting at the country's largest oil refinery, which is near Baiji.

11:50 am: Kerry arrives in autonomous Kurdish region

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region on Tuesday, part of a diplomatic drive aimed at preventing the country from splitting apart.

Kerry was to meet leaders of the three-province Kurdistan region, after holding talks in Baghdad the day before with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other politicians from across the political and religious spectrum.

10:45 am: NATO convenes to discuss Iraq, Ukraine

NATO foreign ministers convened on Tuesday to discuss the Iraq crisis after US Secretary of State John Kerry pledged "intense" support to Baghdad in the fight against militants pushing towards the capital, AFP reported.

A two-day meeting of foreign ministers from NATO countries began to discuss the situation in Iraq, as well as Ukraine.

Earlier this month, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance was following events in Iraq "closely", but said he saw no role for it in the conflict.

10:45 am: Iraqi troops regain control of one border crossing with Syria

Iraqi security forces regained control of the Al-Waleed border crossing between Iraq and Syria after Sunni Arab militants briefly seized it, officers said on Monday.

The militants took the crossing on Sunday, but as of Monday evening, it was back in Iraqi government hands, a police colonel and a major in the border guards said.

The militants withdrew without fighting, the officers said, allowing security forces to move back in.

8:45 am: Two Indian men working in Iraq return home

Two persons from West Bengal's Nadia district have returned home from the violence-hit Iraq, family members said here today.

As per a PTI report, Biswajit Hira and Manik Sarkar, both residents of Nadia's Tehatta, was working as carpenters at Iraq's Barsa city, returned home yesterday fearing for life due to the ongoing insurgency in the gulf state.

"There was no attack on our working place in Basra but it was only 15 km away from our place where the insurgents were fighting with security forces," a visibly shaky Sarkar said.

"The Iraqi government gave us security after Indians were abducted from Mosul... Authorities of our company had a discussion with us and then they arranged for our return. I shall not go to Iraq ever," the resident of Tehatta's Nazirpur-Mrigi village said.

Hira, who had previously worked in Dubai for six years, said they and other four others came back home from Iraq on Saturday night.

"One of the four persons was from Punjab and other three were from Rajastan. We boarded plane at Al Basra and finally landed in Delhi via Sharjah where we had to wait for about 11 hours," Hira, who went to Iraq 10 months back, said.

Meanwhile, two women from the district claimed that their husbands, who went to Iraq as construction workers, have been abducted there.

Moushumi Biswas from Bogula-Patikabari of Hanshkhali claimed that her husband Kshitish Biswas and another Jharna Biswas from Gangnapur said her husband Basudev Biswas, both construction workers have been abducted.

Both men, who went to Iraq three months ago, could not be contacted since Friday because their phones were switched off, their wives claimed.

Similarly, family members of Khokan Sikdar and Samar Tikadar, who were allegedly taken hostages by insurgents in Iraq, claimed that the two could not be contacted because their phones were found switched off since the last few days.

Both Sikdar and Tikadar's wife had met Nadia District Magistrate PB Salim in this connection.

However, it is not known if these two are among the 40 Indian workers, who were kidnapped from Mosul in Iraq and being held hostage by the militants.

8:30 am: Iraq assures US special forces of legal immunity

Iraq has offered legal guarantees to shield US special forces operatives sent to the country as advisers to help its forces battle Sunni radicals who have seized tracts of territory. The White House said Monday that the guarantee had been provided by the Iraqis in a diplomatic note to Washington.

Many of Obama's political opponents say their exit fostered a power vacuum which the Sunni group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has exploited in a rapid advance across the country. "The commander in chief would not make a decision to put our men and women in harm's way without getting some necessary assurances," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

John Kerry at the end of a news conference at US embassy in Baghdad. Reuters image

John Kerry at the end of a news conference at US embassy in Baghdad. Reuters image

"We can confirm that Iraq has provided acceptable assurances on the issue of protections for these personnel via the exchange of diplomatic note."

Earnest said the current situation differed from prevailing conditions at the end of 2011, making the less formal assurance of legal protections from Iraq more acceptable.

"We're dealing with an emergency situation ... there is an urgent need for these advisers to be able to do their work on the ground in Iraq," he said.

Earnest said the number of advisers contemplated for this mission was much smaller than the several thousand that had been contemplated for a post-Iraq force.

--End of updates for 23 June--

5:20 pm: Militants seize border post between Iraq and Syria

Sunni Arab militants have seized the Al-Waleed border crossing between Iraq and Syria, officers said on Monday of the second frontier post to fall in as many days, AFP reported.

The militants took the crossing on Sunday, and the security forces that had been guarding it headed south to join troops at another crossing with Jordan, a colonel and a captain in the border guards said.

4:53 pm: MEA says hostages safe; in touch with nurses

The Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Syed Akbaruddin today said that the MEA is in touch with 46 nurses stranded in Tikrit as the government continued it's struggle to bring back those stuck in violence torn Iraq.

"There are 103 Indians in conflict zones. Company with the largest no of Indian nationals is in Najaf. There are around 2000 employees from India. We also got in touch with Indian agents who sent the Indian agents to work with the company in Najaf," Akbaruddin said.

He also said that some Indian nationals are not in the conflict zone but there are issues with their documents, visa or contracts. "We have received 300 requests of assistance of different sorts. 100 relate to evacuation. 100 requests are with regards to relatives not being able to contact those in Iraq. There are more than 500 people in Basra, but it is not close to the conflict zone," he said.

Affirming that the abducted workers were on top of the government's priority, Akbaruddin said that the abducted workers were unharmed. "We have already said there is no safety in captivity. That said we are trying to get information on them everyday," he said.

3:41 pm: Tal Afar falls to militants

The strategic Shiite-majority north Iraq town of Tal Afar has completely fallen to Sunni Arab militants after days of heavy fighting, a local official and witnesses said on Monday.

"The town of Tal Afar and the airport... are completely under the control of the militants," the official said on condition of anonymity.

2:17 pm: Sunni tribes gain control of border crossing between Iraq and Jordan

Sunni tribes took control of a border crossing between Iraq and Jordan late on Sunday after Iraq's army pulled out of the area following a clash with rebels, Iraqi and Jordanian intelligence sources said.

The major Turbail crossing was now in the hands of officials following orders from Sunni tribal fighters in Iraq's western Anbar province, the sources told Reuters on Monday.

1:45 pm: John Kerry arrives in Iraq for surprise visit

US Secretary of State John Kerry landed in Baghdad on a surprise trip to push for Iraqi unity and stability, as Sunni militants advanced in west Iraq after security forces retreated, AFP reported.

Flying in from Jordan on a visit which the State Department had sought to keep secret amid security concerns, Kerry was to meet with beleaguered Prime Minister Noori al-Maliki and Iraqi leaders across the political and communal spectrum.

Kerry "will discuss US actions underway to assist Iraq as it confronts this threat from ISIL and urge Iraqi leaders to move forward as quickly as possible with its government formation process to forge a government," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

1:34 pm: 23 killed as militants attack Iraqi convoy transporting detainees

Twenty-three detainees were killed during a militant attack on an Iraqi convoy transporting them south of Baghdad on Monday morning, officials said.

Seven gunmen also died in the ensuing clashes, according to a police captain and a doctor at a hospital in the town of Hashimiyah, in Babil province. It was not immediately clear how the detainees died.

It is the second instance of a large number of detainees being killed since the start of a militant offensive on June 9 that has overrun large areas of five different provinces, AFP reported.

12:00 pm: Is ISIS looking to target India?

The Times of India reported that militant group ISIS that has taken over a number of cities in Iraq in a lightening advance is aiming "to create an Islamic World Dominion of which even India would be a part."

According to the TOI report, the militant group recently released a map, which shows parts of North-west India, including Gujarat, part of a bigger caliphate called the "Islamic state of Khorasan." The outfit is likely to get help from Indian jihadists allegedly fighting in Iraq and Syria, and who will purportedly return to aid ISIS. Read the full report here.

11:25 am: Sushma Swaraj to meet Indian envoys of neighbouring countries

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj will chair a meeting of Indian envoys of Iraq's neighbouring countries, to take stock of the escalating crisis in Iraq, Times Now reported. The crucial meeting is due to be held at 12 pm today, reports claimed.

--End of updates for June 21--

6:42 pm: Forces withdraw from three towns in the west

Iraqi forces have allegedly withdrawn from three towns in the western part of the country.

An AFP report quoted Lieutenant General Qassem Atta as saying, "The military units' withdrawal (from Al-Qaim, Rawa and Ana) was for the purpose of redeployment."

The report said that witnesses said insurgents moved into Rawa and Ana, in Anbar province, yesterday evening, after security officers and witnesses also reported militants entering Al-Qaim earlier in the day.

4:06 pm: Sunni militants capture another town in Anbar province

Iraqi officials say Sunni militants have seized another town in Iraq's western Anbar province, the fourth to fall in their hands since Friday.

They said the militants captured Rutba, about 150 kilometres east of the Jordanian border, late yesterday. Residents were today negotiating with the militants to leave after an army unit on the town's outskirts threatened to start shelling.

12:57 pm: ISIS to use abducted Indians as shields?

While one of the 40 abducted Indians have managed to escape. the other 39, reports suggest, may be used by ISIS as their defence in case of a military offensive.

The Hindustan Times reports an official as saying, "While there is little information on the other captives, in its conversations with Harjit Singh, now in the safe custody of Kurdish authorities in Erbil, the government has concluded that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant may use the Indians as their first line of defence"

9:10 am: 16 Indians rescued from violence-affected areas

Sixteen Indians stranded in violence-affected areas of Iraq have been evacuated and one of the 40 kidnapped Indians has escaped from captivity in Mosul town even as government said it was "knocking at all doors" to rescue its citizens.

As concerns mounted for the kidnapped Indians and 46 nurses trapped in Tikrit, Government said it was making all out efforts and was in touch with a number of countries in the region besides Iraqi authorities to resolve the crisis.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi reviewed the situation at a high-level meeting which was attended by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval Cabinet Secretary Ajit Seth, Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh and heads of intelligence and security agencies. - PTI

Updates for 20 June end

9:07 pm: Abducted Indians alive and safe, says Red Cresent

Even as the Ministry of Home Affairs said that the abducted Indians were safe, the families of those kidnapped have some more good news.

NDTV reported International Red Crescent as saying the hostages were 'alive and in good condition'.

While the worried families have pleaded the government to get their loved ones back home safely, the government too has repeatedly assured them that they are doing everything for the safety of Indians in Iraq.

5:32 pm: 16 Indians rescued from strife-torn areas, says MEA

The Ministry of External Affair has now said that that 16 Indians have been rescued from violence hit areas in Iraq.

5:05 pm: Abducted Indians safe, says MEA

The Ministry of External Affairs said today that the Indians abducted in Iraq are safe.

"All Indians abducted in Iraq safe, those who want to return to India will be given monetary help if needed," the MEA said.

They also said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi taken stock of the abduction of 40 Indians in Iraq and that it was a matter of high priority for them.

3:02 pm: Insurgents regrouping to launch fresh attack on refinery, says Army officer

The army officer in charge of protecting a key Iraqi refinery besieged by Sunni militants says he fears insurgents are regrouping to resume their assault on the key facility.

Col. Ali al-Qureishi said the latest attempt by fighters came late Thursday. Al-Qureishi told The Associated Press that he believed the militants were regrouping to launch a new attack.

There was no immediate way to independently verify al-Qureishi's claims.

11:48 am: Brent crude nears $115 a barrel in anticipation of supply disruption from Iraq

Brent crude held near $115 a barrel today, close to a nine-month high and headed for its second weekly gain on increased risks of supply disruptions from Iraq, Reuters reported.

Iraqi government forces battled Sunni militants for control of the country's biggest refinery on Thursday. If the 300,000 barrels per day refinery stays closed, Baghdad will need to import more oil products to meet its own domestic consumption, further tightening oil markets.

A U.S. Geological Survey satellite image shows smoke rising from the Baiji refinery near Tikrit, Iraq. Reuters/Landsat data courtesy of the US Geological Survey/Handout via Reuters

A U.S. Geological Survey satellite image shows smoke rising from the Baiji refinery near Tikrit, Iraq. Reuters/Landsat data courtesy of the US Geological Survey/Handout via Reuters

Fields south of Baghdad, where most of Iraq's 3.3 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil is produced, as well as exports remain unaffected. But heavy fighting north of the capital and foreign oil firms beginning to pull out staff pose a risk to supplies from OPEC's number two producer.

"This raises the risk of production halts in the near future, so although there are no disruptions at the moment, we do see further upside to prices," said Ken Hasegawa, a Tokyo-based commodity sales manager at Newedge Japan.

Brent crude slipped 8 cents to $114.98 a barrel at 0333 GMT, after ending 80 cents higher at $115.06 a barrel, the highest settlement since Sept. 9, 2013. The contract was up 1.3 percent for the week, after rising 4.4 percent last week.

The US crude oil contract, which expires on Friday, increased 27 cents to $106.70 a barrel. The contract settled 46 cents higher in the previous session, but was on course for a third weekly decline in four.

"Brent is at a high for the year, triggering some short covering and possibly adding further long positions," said Hasegawa. "The contract may go to a previous high of around $117.30 hit last August."

11:21 am: Hostage negotiations begin

International Humanitarian aid organisation the Red Crescent and the construction company Tariq Noor ul-Huda have made contact with ISIS militants seeking release of the 40 abducted Indian nationals, The Hindu reported.

"The informal negotiations centre on the release of the Indians, believed to be held by insurgents in a cotton factory near Mosul, and over a hundred other expatriates from South and East Asia," the report says.

11:00 am: India prepares for talks with abductors

ABP news reported that India is preparing to talk with the militants who have kidnapped 40 Indian construction workers in Mosul. "Former Indian ambassador to Iraq Suresh Reddy, who reached Baghdad this morning, will lead negotiations for India once contact is established with the abductors, senior officials revealed," the report says.

9:52 am: Centre ignored RAW's input about threat to Indians in Mosul

India's external intelligence agency the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) had alerted the government of India at least five days ago that Indians in Mosul are in danger, Deccan Chronicle reported. However, both the PMO and External Affairs Ministry ignored the input.

"It was further learnt that an alert of the possibility of 40 Indians being abducted by ISIS was conveyed to the Indian government on Monday," says the report in Deccan Chronicle.

The report also claimed that the nurses in Tikrit are continuing to perform daily duties in the hospital where they have been stranded. The hospital has been taken over by ISIS militants who purportedly said they would pay the nurses their normal wages and keep them safe.

8:59 am: Militants gain control of Iraq's chemical weapons complex

ISIS militants have gained control of Iraq's chemical weapons complex, CNN-IBN reported. According to the report, the seized plant contains old contaminated weapons.

8:22 am: One kidnapped Indian manages to escape

Hindustan Times reported today that one of the Indian workers abducted in Mosul has managed to escape and contacted officials at the Indian embassy in Baghdad.

The report quoted Iraqi Red Crescent’s president Dr Yaseen Abbass as saying: “He is safe and is currently in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil."

7:15 am: Kidnapped Indians safe, confirms Sushma Swaraj

The government confirmed kidnapped Indians in Mosul, Iraq are safe and there locations have been identified by Iraqi authorities. PTI reported.

"They are all safe and are lodged in two locations- a cotton mill and a government building," External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj told family members of some of the kidnapped Indians from Punjab who met her in the presence of Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal.

"We are making all-out efforts to ensure that all Indians return safely. We are leaving no stone unturned and whosoever is to be contacted, we have activated all of them. We guarantee to bring them back the moment there is normalcy there," she told reporters.

Assuring the family members of the kidnapped men, she said, "I have asked them to be patient, pray to God and allow us to make our efforts. I am confident that all three things will help us achieve success."

Swaraj advised all those stranded in Iraq not to venture out of their homes.

End of Updates for 19 June

11: 00 pm: Obama issues statement on Iraq, says US will send 300 military advisers

Obama issued a statement on Iraq today. The United States President said that they will send up to 300 military advisers to Iraq and set up joint operation centers.

"Above all, Iraqi leaders must rise above their differences and come together around a political plan for Iraq’s future." he added.

"The United States will not pursue military options that support one sect inside of Iraq at the expense of another...The most important question we should all be asking…is what is in the national security interests of the United States." said the President in his statement.

7.40 pm: Ensure 46 nurses in Tikrit return safely, Chandy tells Modi

Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy Thursday asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to ensure that all steps are taken for the safe return of all Keralites, who wish to do so, from Iraq in the wake of the violence in the country.

"The centre should see that the 46 nurses who are in Tikrit region are facing difficulty and if need arises a special Air India aircraft be sent to bring them back. Also they have been asked to pay damages for breaking the contract and hence, the Indian Embassy should be alerted and also if necessary, agencies like the UN and the Red Cross," said Chandy in a letter to Modi.

Meanwhile speaking to IANS from Iraq's Basra, a carpenter from Kerala who has been there for the past 23 months, said they have informed the Indian embassy in Iraq that things are getting tough for them as their salaries are not being paid on time and with the situation fluid, they wish to return.

"We very rarely go out and what we are told is that at times there are gun-totting people moving up and down the streets. Things are getting scary and we have stopped working from Wednesday onwards.

7.05 pm: Jaya writes to Modi urging his personal intervention to rescue TN nurses

As 46 Indian nurses, including six from Tamil Nadu, are stranded in a hospital in strife-torn
Iraq, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa today urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to personally intervene in the issue and ensure their safe return home.

In a letter to Modi, she said "these nurses are innocent bystanders, rendering valuable service to the health system of Iraq. India and the international community at large are duty- bound to ensure their safety and to provide them a safe passage back to their homeland."

The nurses' families were extremely anxious about their safety, she said.

"I would be grateful if you could kindly intervene personally and take up the matter at the highest level in Iraq and with other international agencies including the United Nations and the Red Crescent to secure the safety and security of the Indian nurses, including the six from Tamil Nadu, and arrange for their safe passage back to India," she added.

Fortysix Indian nurses, including six from Tamil Nadu — Sini, Sili, Simi, Aleena, Neethu and Maneetha of the Nilgris, working in General Hospital at Tikrit in Iraq were stranded in the ongoing conflict in that country.

6.43 pm: Govt doing everything and more to rescue Indians, says Sushma Swaraj

After meeting Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj today said that India was in touch with every organisation possible to bring back Indians stranded in Iraq.

"We are in contact with every organisation possible to help us in our efforts to rescue Indians in Iraq. However, patience is essential. Not only are we doing what the government has to do but more. We are leaving no stone unturned to help them," ANI quoted Swaraj as saying.

Swaraj's statement comes right after the Ministry of External affairs announced that India is aware of the whereabouts of 40 nationals who were said to be abducted.

Swaraj said, "Situation in Iraq doesn't allow the other Indians to come back to India, but when the situation is neutral Government of India will take care of it."

4:00 pm: We now know the location of the abducted workers, says MEA

The Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said that the Iraqi government confirmed the abduction of the 40 Indian workers and that they have located the workers. "Foreign Ministry of Iraq has confirmed to us that they have been able to determine the location where the workers are being held captive," said Akbaruddin.

Akbaruddin also said that Suresh Reddy, former Indian ambassador to Iraq has reached Baghdad and is monitoring the situation. He also said that Minister for External Affair Sushma Swaraj had met with the crisis management group twice today and has been monitoring the situation personally. "She [Swaraj] also spoke to Punjab chief minister, deputy chief minister as well as Kerala chief minister, while Anil Wadhwa, secretary (east) has had two conversations with the Iraqi ambassador," said Akbaruddin.

He also said that the government has not ruled out any steps that could be taken to ensure the safety to of Indians in Iraq. "We will do whatever it takes to ensure the safety of Indian citizens," he said,

Akbaruddin also said that the Indian embassy in Iraq will remain open to assist other citizens who wish to leave the country. He also said that documentation for those who wish to return will not be an issue. "The lack of passports or other documents will not be a problem. We have helpline numbers where people can call and the Indian mission in Baghdad will continue to assist those who wish to get out of Iraq," he said.

He also said that all efforts were being made to keep in contact with Indians across Iraq, even in parts where the security situation is bad.

2:45 pm: Abducted workers call families, say they will be released unharmed

The Economic Times reported that several families of the 40 kidnapped men allegedly received calls from them. The abducted workers who called their families allegedly told them that they would be freed unharmed if the government of India gets in touch with their captors or comes to get them.

Charanjit Singh, brother of one of the abducted men who claimed his brother called him for two minutes to let him know he was safe. "He said he and his co-workers from India were all safe and not held hostage," ET quoted Singh as saying.

2:45 pm: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warns of "war in the Muslim world"

A Twitter account Iran experts believe is run by the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in comments apparently inspired by Iraq's turmoil, said on Thursday that Sunni militants wanted to bring about a war in the Muslim world.

A message posted in English on the account @khamenei_ir said such militants wanted to foment distrust between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, a goal they shared with "arrogant" powers - normally an Iranian codeword for the United States and its Western and Israeli allies, Reuters reported.

Referring to "takfiri" militants - Sunnis who proclaim followers of other sects of Islam to be infidels and therefore legitimate targets of holy war - the message said: "Muslims should be aware of Takfiris and arrogant's common goal to create a war in Muslim world - both Shias and Sunnis should be vigilant."

1:45 pm: 250-300 workers evacuated from Baiji refinery during brief truce in fighting

The last of the trapped workers in Iraq's Baiji refinery were freed during a brief truce in the fighting between the Iraqi military and Sunni militants for control of the strategic facility, according to one of the workers who was released.

There had been 15,800 workers at the refinery and 100 foreign experts, most of whom had left by Tuesday when the plant was shut down by the government in anticipation of the attack.

The workers were escorted out according to an arrangement brokered by local sheiks for the employees to be taken out on buses, the released worker said.

10.36 am: Will pay ransom if we have to, says Punjab CM

A delegation from Punjab will meet with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj today to discuss the situation in Iraq and the kidnapping of 40 Indians from Mosul. Majority of those kidnapped belong to the state and surrounding regions.

Swaraj also said she would meet the kin of those abducted in Iraq. "I am monitoring the situation personally. We're doing everything in our power to bring the kidnapped citizens back," she said.

Meanwhile, the chief minister Punjab CM Parkash Singh Badal also said that he would provide all assistance to ensure the safe return of those stranded in Iraq, Times Now reported. He also said he would pay the ransom amount if it would ensure the safety of the kidnapped Indians, he told CNN-IBN.

"Must prepare for search and evacuation. We have very good relations with the government of Iraq and they will help in every way possible," said former Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid.

9.00 am: Oil prices up with Iraq violence in focus

Oil prices rose in Asian trade Thursday with escalating violence in Iraq sharply in focus as militants attacked the major crude producer's biggest refinery and seized more territory.

US benchmark West Texas Intermediate (WTI) for July rose 35 cents to $106.32 while Brent crude for August gained nine cents to $114.35 in late-morning trade, AFP reported.

WTI has jumped by more than $2.0 a barrel and Brent by over $4.0 since the escalation of the jihadist offensive last week.

"The escalation of the crisis in Iraq led to a sharp spike in crude prices," said Sanjeev Gupta, head of the Asia-Pacific oil and gas practice at professional services firm Ernst & Young.

"Together with the limited spare capacity due to drying up of supplies from Libya, any further escalation of the crises in the region can lead to a sharp spike in benchmark prices," he said.

Sunni fighters led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on Wednesday launched an assault on the Baiji oil refinery -- Iraq's biggest -- spooking international oil markets.

Officials say security forces retain control of the refinery, but clashes are ongoing. Washington said it had not seen any major disruptions in Iraqi oil supplies as a result of the assault.

Most of Iraq's oil infrastructure is in the far south of the country, which has so far not been affected by the now nine-day insurgency.

Baghdad has called for US air strikes as the lightning offensive rapidly bears down on the capital.

7.54 am: Families of abducted workers to meet MEA officials

Families of the 40 Indian workers who were abducted from Mosul, Iraq, have left to Delhi to meet MEA officials, even as India makes efforts to find out more about the incident.

Yesterday MEA spokesman Syed Akbaruddin confirmed that 40 Indians had been kidnapped in the country, and said that while they were in touch with international agencies, they had no further information.

Meanwhile Iraq has asked the United States for air support in countering Sunni rebels, the top U.S. general said on Wednesday, after the militants seized major cities in a lightning advance that has routed the Shi'ite-led government's army.

But General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave no direct reply when asked at a congressional hearing whether Washington would agree to the request.

Baghdad said it wanted U.S. airstrikes as the insurgents, led by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, battled their way into the biggest oil refinery in Iraq and the president of neighbouring Iran raised the prospect of intervening in a sectarian war that threatens to sweep across Middle East frontiers.

-- end of updates for 18 June 2014 --

9.00 pm: Telangana approaches Centre to secure 600 in Iraq from state

There are about 600 people from Telangana in Iraq and the government is taking all steps to ensure their safety, Telangana Deputy Chief Minister Mohammed Mehmood Ali said on Wednesday, according to a IANS report.

He said the state government was in touch with the Ministry of External Affairs and was gathering information about those from Telangana feared trapped in Iraq.

Ali told reporters here that the government has so far identified 600 workers from Telangana. He said Chief Minister K Chandrasekhara Rao was in regular touch with the Central government.

An Iraqi boy holds a weapon as he takes part in a gathering of Shiite tribesman. AFP image

An Iraqi boy holds a weapon as he takes part in a gathering of Shiite tribesman. AFP image

Earlier, Information Technology Minister Tarakarama Rao said the government would take all necessary steps to safely bring back the Telanganites trapped in Iraq.

The state government has already opened a helpline in NRI cell to provide information about the workers from the state trapped in Iraq and to render assistance.

The helpline numbers opened in the state secretariat are 040-23220603 and 9440854433.

The state government has also asked all district collectors to find out if workers/migrants from their respective districts are trapped in Iraq and if they require any help including evacuation.

The collectors were asked to collect details like passport numbers, address in Iraq and contact numbers so that the state government can get in touch with the ministry of external affairs for assistance.

8.26 pm: Punjab CM meets Sushma over kidnappings

Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal has met Sushma Swaraj over the kidnapping of 40 Indians in Iraq's Mosul town.

Many of those kidnapped hail from Punjab, and their kin also approached the CM to ensure their rescue.

4.14 pm: 40 Indian workers in Mosul have been kidnapped, confirms MEA

MEA spokesman Syed Akbaruddin has confirmed that 40 Indians in Mosul have been abducted, based on information received from international agencies.

He said that this was a very difficult situation and that all steps were being taken to try and secure their release. Akbaruddin added that the Indian government had not received any information or any ransom demands. "Even the international Red Crescent is not aware of their location", he said.

Akbaruddin added that they had no idea who had carried out the abduction or the location where the workers were being held, adding that the priority at the moment was to establish contact and try and find as much information as possible.

Akbaruddin added that he was not in a position to give details or information on the procedural aspects of what the Indian government was doing, saying only that they were willing to work with all organisations and countries.

"We have not received any call of any nature from anyone indicating about ransom or about taking Indians in custody in Iraq," he added. 

As far as the welfare of the 40 Kerala nurses trapped in Tikrit are concerned, Akbaruddin said, "We have requested the Red Crescent to try and contact them and assure their security and welfare. Red Crescent said that they had gone met there and told them in the communication that it is not appropriate to take a surface route."

"As part of our planning (contingency planning unit in Delhi) we are working on a variety of options. Even if there are 1,2 5, 10 we are willing to assist to the best of our ability.

The MEA also said that there were no plans to shut down the Indian embassy in the country. "We are not fairweather friends - we will not shut down the embassy. Our former ambassador there  - Suresh Reddy - will go to Baghdad to further assist operations", he said.

1:57 pm: Sushma Swaraj calls kin of Punjabi youth stranded in Iraq 

The family members of the Punjabi youth stranded in Iraq on Wednesday received a call from Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj assuring her help in rescuing them.

Gurpinder Kaur, whose brother Maninder Singh is amongst those stranded in Iraq, told ANI that Sushma assured help and told her that she has been monitoring the situation herself.

Meanwhile, the Sensex closed 274 points lower at 25,246 than the previous day due to the Iraq crisis. Nifty was down by 73 points as fighting escalated through the day.

1:57 pm: Crisis bears signs of impending civil war, warns Saudi 

Saudi Arabia warned Wednesday of the risks of civil war in Iraq with unpredictable consequences for the region, after Sunni militants seized large areas from Shiite-led government forces.

The unrest in Iraq "carries warning signs of a civil war with unpredictable consequences for the region," Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said at the opening of an Islamic bloc meeting in the Red Sea city of Jeddah.

12:24 pm: Militants attack main oil refinery

Militants launched an assault on Iraq's main oil refinery early Wednesday as they pressed an offensive that has seen them capture swathes of territory, an official and a refinery employee said.

AFP image

AFP image

Clashes erupted at around 4:00 am at the Baiji oil refinery in Salaheddin province, north of Baghdad, and militants destroyed some stores of oil after entering the complex, AFP reports.

Meanwhile, the Sensex fell by 180 points as soon as reports of attack on the refinery emerged.

11:10 am: US and Iran hold talks over the situation in Iraq

According to the Guardian, "US and Iranian officials held talks over the advance of Islamist insurgents in Iraq, the first time the two nations have collaborated over a common security interest in more than a decade. The discussions in Vienna took place on the sidelines of separate negotiations about Iran’s nuclear programme."

The US is also considering send in more troops to protect its embassy and civilians in Iraq. According to Associated Press, US is urgently deploying several hundred armed troops in and around Iraq and considering sending an additional contingent of special forces soldiers as Baghdad struggles to repel a rampant insurgency, even as the White House insists anew that America will not be dragged into another war.

President Barack Obama notified Congress Monday that up to 275 troops could be sent to Iraq to provide support and security for US personnel and the American Embassy in Baghdad.

11:00 am:  According to CNN, ISIS is now advancing towards another key Iraqi city: Baquba 

The CNN report says that gun battles have erupted in the city, Baquba, which is "only a 45-minute drive from the capital". "According to a Baquba police official and an official in the Baquba governor's office, militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, have "made a great advance on Baquba" and are pushing very hard to take it, but the city has not fallen," adds the report.

9:30 am: Telangana govt opens helpline for information on workers trapped in Iraq

The Telangana government has opened a helpline in its NRI cell to provide information about workers from the state trapped in Iraq and to render assistance. Telangana CM K Chandrasekhara Rao asked his ministers to be aware of the situation in Iraq. The helpline numbers opened in the state secretariat are 040-23220603 and 09440854433.

Chief Minister K Chandrasekhara Rao has asked Chief Secretary Rajiv Sharma to be in touch with the external affairs ministry to know the latest situation in the strife-torn Iraq, IANS reported.

The state government has also asked all district collectors to find out if workers or migrants from their districts are trapped in Iraq and if they require any help, including evacuation.

The collectors were asked to gather details like passport numbers, addresses in Iraq and contact numbers so that the state government can get in touch with the external affairs ministry for assistance.

9:00 am: Indians stranded in Mosul cannot be contacted: Foreign Ministry

About 40 Indians stranded in Mosul cannot be contacted, the Ministry of External Affairs told NDTV. Syed Akbaruddin, ministry of external affairs spokesperson said that government has been unable to establish contact with the workers.

MEA also said that there have been "no reports of any Indians being targetted."

Meanwhile nurses stranded in Tikrit are safe but remain trapped within hospital premises. "We are literally prisoners within the hospital premises. There are no Iraqi employees here," one of the nurses, Marina Jose told NDTV. "We are afraid because we have no security here. All the military, police, everybody escaped from here. Only we are here," she said.

8:30 am: ISIL militants abduct 40 Indian workers in Mosul

Around 40 Indians working near Mosul in Iraq have been allegedly kidnapped by ISIS militants while they were being evacuated from the area, the Times of India reported online.

According to the TOI report, former ambassador to Iraq Suresh Reddy has been sent to Mosul. "Sources in the government said the PM has asked all sources to be tapped for locating the workers. National security advisor AK Doval is coordinating the rescue effort."

Photo of recent violence in Iraq. Reuters image

Photo of recent violence in Iraq. Reuters image

Last week, Sunni and Kurdish militants captured key cities and towns in Iraq in a brisk onslaught. Later, militants captured and killed several Iraqi security personnel. The grisly killings, which were photographed and posted on social media drew sharp reactions from world leaders including the West evacuating embassy staff.

Apart from the 41 construction workers in Mosul, there are 46 Indian nurses stranded in Tikrit — most of them are from Kerala.

On Monday, India had voiced its strongly condemnation of attacks by terrorist outfits in Iraq, saying that the takeover of cities such as Mosul and Tikrit was a direct threat to security and territorial integrity of the West Asian country.

On Tuesday, Baquba, capital of Diyala province, 60 km from Baghdad, saw Sunni militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) take control of several districts on the western outskirts of the city before government troops and allied Shia militia regained control, according to reports.

The US and Iran are actively considering ways to help the Iraqi government tackle the situation.

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