NEW DELHI: Forty Indian construction workers have been kidnapped from the militant-controlled city of Mosul in northern Iraq, India’s foreign ministry said Wednesday.
Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said it remains unclear who is behind the kidnappings or where the hostages are being held. India is dispatching its former ambassador to Iraq, Suresh Reddy, to the strife-torn nation, the foreign ministry said, and has set up a control room in Delhi to monitor the situation.
Within Iraq, Sunni militants have taken over large swaths of the nation, beating back the country’s military in a violent insurgency that threatens to destabilize the region.
Families of several of the kidnapped men say they received phone calls in recent days before the kidnapping. Devender Singh, a 33-year-old laborer who hails from India’s northern state of Punjab, phoned his wife this past Sunday and told her “the situation there was scary,” a cousin of his said in an interview late Wednesday. The family’s two children, five and seven years old, “haven’t been informed that their father is in trouble,” according to the cousin, Arvinder Singh.
Details remain sketchy and it is too early to draw conclusions about the hostage-taking, said Leela Ponappa, a former deputy national security adviser under the Congress party-led government from 2007 to 2009. So far, she said, there are few suggestions that “Indian nationals are being targeted per se” by kidnappers. She considered it more likely that the workers were “just caught in a serious conflict zone.”
The kidnappings present a challenge to India’s new administration, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who took office just weeks ago and who has promised to be tough on security and is seen by his supporters as a problem-solver capable of making quick decisions. One of the most dramatic hostage-takings took place about 15 years ago—during the last time Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party was in power—when Indian Airlines flight 814 from Nepal to India was hijacked and diverted to Afghanistan, leading to a dayslong standoff. To resolve that crisis, India agreed to release three militants in its custody.
On Wednesday, the foreign ministry said India is working with the construction company that employed the workers as well as international humanitarian agencies to obtain more information. Mr. Akbaruddin said the Indian government hasn’t received requests for ransom.
Many of the kidnapped Indian workers come from Punjab, the foreign ministry said. In the Punjab town of Jalandhar, a relative of another of the kidnapped workers described speaking to his uncle on this past weekend by phone.
“The area was captured by terrorists,” he said his uncle, Roop Lal, told him. “We are OK,’ were the words when I last spoke to him,” said the relative, who gave his name as Jaspal.
He said his uncle has been working as an iron-rod fixer in Iraq for two years. After the area was captured by militants, his employer had shut down operations and the workers had been moved “to an old thread-weaving factory,” Mr. Jaspal said his uncle told him.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs has opened a call center for relatives of Indian citizens currently in Iraq. By Wednesday evening, it had received more than 200 calls, a ministry official said.
Gurpinder Kaur of Majitha in Punjab said her brother, Manjinder Singh, is also among the kidnap victims in Iraq. She said she spoke to him Tuesday afternoon and he said there were five others with him in Mosul. “There was sound of gunfire at the time,” Ms. Kaur said. She quoted him as saying, “So far, we have been safe.”
India’s foreign ministry estimates that there are about 10,000 Indian nationals living and working across Iraq. A majority, Mr. Akbaruddin said, are in areas not directly affected by the violence. Nearly 100 are in places “where the security situation is tenuous,” he said, including 46 Indians stranded in another militant-controlled city, Tikrit, with whom the government is in contact.
Analysts said dispatching Mr. Reddy, the former Indian ambassador to Iraq, was a promising move since he would be in a position to call on his relationships with officials within the Iraqi government, whose assistance might be crucial as India tries to garner more information and resolve the crisis.