As the situation in Iraq worsened with at least 85 Indians now in captivity and the ISIS militants forcing the 46 nurses stranded in Tikrit to move out, reportedly to Mosul, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj called up the foreign ministers of six Gulf countries and sought their help on Thursday.
Officials at the level of National Security Advisors and Foreign Secretaries of Turkey, Jordan and Syria — Iraq’s neighbours — have also been contacted through official channels.
Top sources told The Indian Express that Swaraj called up Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal, Bahrain’s Shaikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Bin Mohamed Al Khalifa, Kuwait’s First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah, Oman’s Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi, Qatar Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohamed Al Attiyah and UAE’s Shaikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
“They have all been extremely positive and have assured assistance in the current situation,” said sources.
The development came on a day when India confirmed that the 46 nurses were being moved out of the Tikrit Teaching Hospital, and South Block said “there is no free will in zones of conflict” — indicating that they are being transferred by the ISIS forces.
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Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, who met Swaraj in New Delhi on Thursday, said some of the nurses had sustained minor injuries after they were hit by broken pieces of window panes. “We will do everything possible to ensure their safety within the limited options,’’ said Chandy.
Quoting the nurses, some of their relatives in Kerala said the militants had forced them to board the buses on Thursday morning. John Abraham, the father of one of the nurses, said the nurses had no option but to obey the militants. “They sought the advice of the Indian Embassy officials, who asked them to obey the rebels. It seems everyone from the Indian side has jettisoned our daughters,” he said.
“After boarding the bus, my daughter said they were travelling with the militants. She said one militant was sitting atop the bus. She told me that she may not be able to call up as they were in the custody of the rebels. Now she is not responding to our calls,” said Abraham.
“There was no power supply at the hospital from this morning… They have lost the morale to fight… They went with the militants after the Embassy did not take any steps to save them. For the first time in the last three weeks, I heard my daughter crying. However, she said the militants told them that they would not be harmed and would be taken to Mosul,’’ said K M Jose, the father of another nurse.
Later in the night, the nurses were allowed to make short calls to their families. Many of their relatives in Kerala confirmed that they had got calls from the nurses, reportedly en route to Mosul, which is 224 kilometres from Tikrit. They were given biscuits and water during the journey.
“The nurses were told that the Iraqi military would attack the Tikrit Teaching Hospital and hence they were being taken to Mosul for their safety. Yesterday, they talked about working in a hospital in Mosul… When they boarded the buses, there was a blast near the hospital, shattering the window panes of the buses. Four nurses sustained minor injuries after they were hit by the broken window panes,’’ said a relative of a nurse.
In Delhi, MEA spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said after considering the situation where there were no options as the area was not under the Iraqi government’s control and the humanitarian groups were unable to reach the nurses, the ministry, in consultation with the Kerala Chief Minister and other stakeholders, advised the nurses to “proceed” as asked.
“It is not a situation of our choice. It is a difficult situation,” he said. “Our embassy continues to be in touch even as they are moving to another location.” He said another group of 39 Indians remains in captivity and “unharmed”.