NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India has learned the location of 40 of its citizens kidnapped in Iraq by suspected Islamist militants and believes they are being held captive with workers of other nationalities, the foreign ministry said on Thursday.
The hostages worked for Baghdad-based construction company Tariq Noor Al Huda and were abducted in Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul after it fell to Sunni Muslim rebels last week.
The kidnapping is the first serious foreign policy crisis for the new government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with relatives of the hostages demanding swift action to free them.
Dozens more foreigners, including many from Turkey, have been taken captive during the jihadi militants’ offensive in towns in the Tigris valley north of Baghdad in recent days.
Foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin declined to reveal the location of the Indian hostages, but said they were being held with other foreigners and that roads in the area were unsafe.
The government is evaluating options to get the hostages home safely, Akbaruddin said. “Every avenue will be pursued. Every channel will be examined,” he told a media briefing.
About 10,000 Indians work in Iraq, mostly in areas unaffected by the fighting between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) insurgents and government forces.
“We demand the government safely return our children. We are very scared,” said Balbir Kaur, the mother of one of the kidnapped workers, many of who are from the north Indian state of Punjab, speaking to Reuters television.
Modi has championed an assertive foreign policy since taking office last month.
“We’re not the only country being targeted,” Kanwal Sibal, a former Indian foreign secretary told Reuters. “(But) the success or lack of success in getting the hostages out early would have an impact on the image of the government.”
Islamist militants have long considered India an enemy. A recent al Qaeda video called on Indian Muslims to follow the example of Syria and Iraq and launch a jihad, or holy war, against the New Delhi government.
On Monday, Lodi’s government condemned the ISIL insurgency and said it stood firmly by Baghdad, breaking from India’s traditionally nuanced diplomacy.
In addition to the construction workers, 46 Indian nurses are stranded in Tikrit, which is under militant control, with many of them holed up in the hospital where they work.
Abraham Jose, who is in touch with his daughter Maria, one of the nurses there, said she and others were waiting for help to reach Baghdad airport.
Jose said that the Indian government had failed to take steps to bring back the stranded nurses, many of whom are from the southern state of Kerala, even as other countries had helped their nurses in Tikrit to return home safe.
Officials said many Indian workers did not want to return for financial reasons.
Additional reporting by D. Jose in THIRUVANANTHAPURAM; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel