A day after Jesuit priest Alexis Premkumar, its country head in Afghanistan, was abducted from Herat, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) has suspended its operations there.
Meanwhile, sources said no ransom call has been received so far. Deputy provincial police chief of Herat, Mohammad Nadir Fahimi, was quoted by Afghan news outlets as saying that “six gunmen” had abducted Premkumar and may have taken him to Gulran district. He said authorities are working with “district elders” to try to mediate his release.
“We are trying to get him to safety,” Herat’s Provincial Governor Fazelullah Wahidi was quoted as saying.
“We are deeply shocked by his abduction. We are in contact with all the relevant authorities and doing everything possible to ensure his safe and speedy return. Meanwhile, our prayers are with him, his family and friends at this difficult time,” said JRS international director Peter Balleis in a statement.
Father Stan Fernandes, regional director, JRS, said the organisation is in touch with the Indian Consulate General in Herat as well as the “local government”. “We were informed about the abduction on Monday afternoon. Premkumar has been a sincere, committed, experience individual who is devoted to young people. We have suspended our operations in Afghanistan,” he said.
Premkumar, 47, was abducted when he was on his way back from a JRS-supported school for Afghan returnees in Sohadat village, 25 km from the city of Herat. Hailing from Devakottai in Sivaganga district of Tamil Nadu, Premkumar was in Afghanistan since 2011.
Premkumar’s father, Antony, a retired school teacher, said the family was informed by the Indian Consulate in Herat. “The officials told me that the search was going on, but did not say anything about the identity of the abductors. He was with us in February this year, for the first death anniversary of his mother. He never indicated that he was facing any kind of threat in Afghanistan. We are all praying for his safe return,’’ he said.
Ordained as a priest in 2000, Premkumar is the eldest of five children. Before moving to Afghanistan, he was associated with JRS in Tamil Nadu for seven years, during which he worked among Lankan refugees in the state.
The JRS is an international Catholic organisation which works for refugees and displaced people. Jesuit priest V Sebastian, who was earlier in Kabul as a JRS volunteer, said the priests do not reveal their religious identity while working with JRS. “We are only known as JRS volunteers. We do not engage in religious practices in Afghanistan. The JRS educational activities in Afghanistan were funded by the US,’’ he said.
“We have been doing apolitical work in the region… We have been there (in Afghanistan) for several years. We are aware of the complex issues in Afghanistan… though we operate from safe areas, there are always political repercussions,” said Fernandes.
While some Afghan media outlets identified Kumar as an Indian government official, the Indian Embassy in Kabul quickly scotched the speculation. “An Indian national who went missing yesterday was working with a Western charity organisation. He had no connection with the Indian government or mission or consulate,” it said in a statement.
Government sources said no group has claimed responsibility so far. However, according to New Delhi’s conventional assessment, the abduction was carried out by those opposed to Indian presence in Afghanistan. Officials are also not ruling out the involvement of local insurgents who may be doing it for money.
South Block kept in close contact with the Indian Embassy in Kabul and the Consulate in Herat through Tuesday, and there was contact with the Afghan authorities as well. Sources said External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has asked officials to keep her updated on the latest developments.
It is learnt that National Security Advisor Ajit Doval was briefed about the incident in a meeting with senior officials from various ministries and intelligence agencies. Sources said the government is prepared for a “long haul” in the case. However, officials said JRS will have to play a key role.