46 nurses ‘on road’ in Iraq, India worried

Pressure on government rising, Kerala CM meets Sushma Mahajan

With pressure mounting by the day on the government over the crisis involving Indians stranded in conflict-torn Iraq, 46 nurses stuck in Tikrit were forced to move out by the militant group ISIS. India faces “difficult times” as there are no easy options available on evacuating these nurses, some of whom have suffered “minor injuries” due to the fighting raging in that country.

The MEA spokesman said on Thursday that the nurses are now “on the road” and moving to an undisclosed destination for their own safety, but also added there was “no free will in a zone of conflict”, indicating they were still in captivity and moving under duress. The Indian government is trying to open channels of communication with groups that may have some influence over the ISIS leadership in view of this situation.

The MEA spokesman said after considering the situation where there were “no options” as the area was not under the Iraqi government’s control and humanitarian groups could not reach these nurses, the ministry, in consultation with Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy and other stakeholders, advised the nurses to “proceed” as they were asked. “It is not a situation of our choice. It is a difficult situation,” he said.

The spokesman did not, however, clearly say which group had asked the nurses to move from the hospital in Tikrit. He added: “Our embassy continues to be in touch even as they are moving to another location.” The nurses, he said, were “unharmed”, though some of them suffered minor injuries in an incident of glass-breaking, but no one had any serious injuries. The spokesman had earlier said on Wednesday that the nurses had taken refuge in the basement of their hospital after bombing and firing took place in the vicinity of the building.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is learnt to have discussed developments in Iraq with US Senator John McCain at their meeting on Thursday. The Congress attacked the government over the imbroglio involving Indians in Iraq.

External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj held wide-ranging consultations with Oommen Chandy, who met her to seek effective action to evacuate the nurses, a majority of whom are from Kerala. The CM, in New Delhi to mount pressure on the government to take prompt action, said the 46 Indian nurses had been moved out of their hospital in ISIS-controlled Tikrit and were “safe”, and there was no need for “anxiety”.

Mr Chandy, who is getting regular updates from Indian diplomats in Iraq, said the MEA and the Indian embassy in Baghdad were making “sincere efforts” to resolve the crisis. The CM and his ministerial colleagues Ramesh

Chennithala, K.M. Mani and M. Ali met Ms Swaraj twice on Thursday and discussed various options. They will be in New Delhi for the next two to three days.

The CM said the nurses had “come out” of the hospital in Tikrit where they worked and “left the place”. He added that “we expect more details after some time”, but did not spell out clearly if they were still in the custody of ISIS fighters.

Asked if the Kerala government had been consulted prior to the nurses being moved out of the hospital, he said: “Now we are not going into these details. Some limitations are there.” He added that two to three nurses had suffered “minor injuries” in an incident as they were about to leave the place.

The CM said Indian embassy officials were trying to contact Red Crescent officials, but they have only “very limited” activities in that area. “They (Red Crescent) are not in a position to bring them to a safe place,” Mr Chandy said.

The MEA spokesman said, meanwhile, that another group of 39 Indians remained in captivity and were “unharmed”. There are believed to be around 100 Indians in the conflict zone, but an exact figure is not available, he said. The spokesman added that India was “not alone” in working for the safety of its nationals and that it had partners “inside and outside Iraq”.

The MEA has already handed out air tickets to almost 1,000 Indians to travel out of Iraq, with 1,500 more wanting to leave, who had registered with the ministry. In Erbil too, some Indians have conveyed to MEA officials that they wanted to leave, the spokesman said.

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