NEW DELHI: Two days after being detained, two of the four Indians teachers abducted by ISIS in Libya were back in the relative safety of their employees at the University of Sirte on Friday afternoon.
Last Tuesday, four Indian nationals, who were working as professors in the University of Sirte, finally decided that the situation had become too dire and left Sirte for the Tunisian border to return to India. The Libyan coastal city, which is the birthplace of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddaffi, had been under ISIS control since May.
But, only 50 kilometres from their outskirts, their journey ended, for now.
“Two days ago, on July 29th at around 11 pm, our Mission in Tripoli came to know that four Indian nationals who were returning to India via Tripoli and Tunis, were detained at a checkpoint approximately 50 kms from Sirte,” said external affairs ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup.
The families back home were alerted to the situation when one of the Indians left behind the phone in the hired taxi. The Taxi driver answered the repeated, urgent calls from a family member and narrated the sequence of events. The Indian embassy in Tripoli, which is now manned by a charge d’affaires, as the Indian ambassador to Libya is based in Tunisia due to the situation.
After two days of being kept under wrap, the family members came before the media to inform them about the plight of their loved ones.
In its first statement confirming the incident, the government did not use the word 'kidnapping' and instead said that the four had been 'detained'. As per sources, no ransom demand had been made so far.
The spokesperson said on late Friday morning that that “as per information from sources, all the four Indian nationals have been brought back to the city of Sirte.”
“We are in regular touch with the families concerned and all efforts are being made to ensure the well-being and early release of the four Indian nationals,” added Swarup.
Six hours later, he announced on twitter: “Welcome news from Libya. 2 of the 4 detained Indians brought back safely to University of Sirte. Our efforts continue for the remaining two”.
The ministry was careful to not use the phrase ‘release’ or ‘free’, as the entire city has been under ISIS management. They will only be really ‘free’ once they left Libya, said an official.
A few minutes, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj also commented on the abduction for the first time. “Four Indians abducted in Libya - I am happy we have been able to secure the release of Lakshmikant and Vijay Kumar. Trying for other two,” she said.
Lakshmikanth is from Raichur in Karnataka, while Vijay Kumar is said to be a native of Bengalooru. The other two, who are still in custody, are Gopi Krishna Tiruvedula and Balram from Hyderabad in Telangana. They have been working with the university since last year.
There are still 39 Indians in ISIS custody in Mosul in Iraq for last one year. The government insists that they are alive based on third party sources. The lone Indian who managed to escape claimed that all of them were massacred.
This is the latest instance of Indians in trouble in Libya, after the rescue of 34 nurses in December 2014.
Last year in June, MEA had estimated that there were 6000 Indian nationals dotted around Libya, out of which 4500 were registered with embassy. Following deterioration in the security situation, Indian government organized a major evacuation drive which brought back about 3300 Indians from Libya in July.
There had been multiple travel advisories issued since then, with the latest issued on July 6. “The Indian nationals are further advised not to take up employment in Libya till the security situation stabilizes,” said the advisory.
But despite the endemic violence and repeated official advice, sources said that over 2000 Indians are still working in Libya, mostly in the healthcare and education sector. Many of them hadn’t left as their salaries and dues were delayed as the Libyan economy fell apart, which was perhaps the reason that the four Indian teachers remained in Sirte.
Meanwhile, Swaraj also took the opportunity to point out that India could face a similar situation in strife-torn Yemen. “Many Indian nurses we evacuated from Yemen are going back. That is a cause for worry. Situation not normal and we do not have Embassy there,” she tweeted.
Just three months ago, India had launched a massive evacuation drive to bring back over 4600 Indian nationals who were struck in Yeman following the start of airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthi rebels.