NEW DELHI: As India marks its 69th independence day, two Indian professors are still marking their time, hoping for their freedom from their abductors, even as fighting has intensified in the Libyan city of Sirte severely disrupting channels of communication.
Following conflict over the use of a mosque, clashes had broken out from since last Tuesday between ISIS which controls Sirte and the Farjan tribe, which was earlier allied to the Islamic State. There are reports of beheading and crucifixion of Sirte residents by ISIS, who have also reportedly put a hospital on fire.
This has complicated the delicate work to evacuate Hyderabadis, Gopikrishna and Balram, whose last known whereabout was at a checkpoint about 50 kilometre outside Sirte on the evening of July 29, when they were going to cross the Tunisia border on way to India.
Their co-travellers and colleagues, Lakshmikant and Vijay Kishore, were released within 48 hours, following intervention by the Sirte university authorities. However, there is still no sign of an end to the nightmare of the two other professors and their families.
As in Iraq, Indian diplomacy is handicapped as it cannot be directly in touch with IS officials and has to go through various intermediaries, including university authorities and other local officials.
Before the fighting erupted this week, Indian diplomats had learned that the two professors had been brought back to Sirte city, which had raised hopes of their quick release.
But as clashes spiral out, with ISIS going all out to recapture parts of Sirte, there has been a breakdown, especially on communication channels.
“They are not responding. The phone calls are not getting through. But, we are trying again and again,” said a source who is privy to the behind-the-scenes talks.
So far, it is “status quo” about the fate of the two Indian teachers, with no new information gleaned in last few days. “We have not heard anything negative so far,” said the sources, when asked about whether the two Indians are safe.
The families of the two Indian professors had met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj on August 10. Indian embassy officials have been in contact with them daily to brief them about the situation.
There are still some Indian professionals left in Sirte, but are keeping indoors due to the fighting and getting updates from social media. “We have told them to leave repeatedly, but they still continue to stay on,” said the source. So far, about 2500 Indians continue to work in Libya, despite multiple advisories issued by the Indian embassy to immediately leave the country.
With the security situation in Tripoli also fragile, the Independence Day function at the Indian embassy in Libya was unusually low-key. “No notice was given out. We just asked members of the Indian community to come to the embassy. It was done very quietly,” said the source.
In front of about 40-50 Indian nationals, Indian ambassador Azhar AH Khan unfurled the Indian flagt. Khan who had been operating from Tunisia due to security situation in Libya has been in Tripoli for over a week to supervise efforts to bring out the two professors.
Along with the two Indian professors, there is also a question mark on the status of the 39 Indians who were last known to have been taken into ISIS custody, when the anti-Shia extremist group took over the Iraqi city of Mosul last year in June. While third party sources have told Indian government that they are safe, there is still no visible light at the end of the tunnel for their loved ones.