NEW DELHI: There have been mixed signals emanating about the fate of the 40 Indian construction workers in Iraq — whom the Ministry of External Affairs has confirmed were kidnapped in Iraq. This is clearly the first foreign policy crisis that confronts the newly-elected Narendra Modi government in its first month in power.
Based on an investigation, Express contacted officials of Tariq Noor Al-Huda, the company where the Indians were employed, as well as the earlier owner of the Iraqi construction firm. There had been a change in ownership in the last few years, but the previous owner was confident that the workers were in transit and would reach Erbil, a safe spot in Kurdistan, in a few days.
When contacted by Express, this information was also corroborated by Mohammed, a senior official of Al-Huda currently working with the company, who said the workers would reach Erbil. The company official then passed on the number of a Bangladeshi worker who had been in the company.
Speaking to Express, Jamaal Khan, a native of Dhaka, said that after the “Shia-Sunni fight broke out” —a reference to the attacks by the Sunni extremist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) — the company had returned their passports and asked them to disperse on their own. “But, we protested. We asked for three years’ salary and a plane ticket. All of us were together, around 53 Bangladeshis and 40 Indians,” he told Express. They were taken to a hospital in Mosul and confined for two days. They were then allowed to leave the hospital to depart for Erbil — but before that the Bangladeshis were separated from the Indians. “We went on our own to Erbil. After reaching a camp there, we found an Indian called Harkit. He said that he was the only survivor. All others had been killed,” said Khan.
When MEA was asked for clarification, the spokesperson said that the government can only go on the basis of “credible information” shared by International aid workers who were on the ground. Nonetheless, he took the number from Express.
A top level source in the government expressed confidence that the Indians were in a safe house near Mosul, but added that immediate evacuation was not possible. Suresh Reddy, who was the Indian ambassador to Iraq till a month ago, has been rushed to Baghdad to augment the skeletal staff and also use his contacts to get the Indians back home safely.