Thiruvananthapuram: Dozens of Indian nurses who have been stranded at an Iraqi hospital are safe but are being forced to move to a new area controlled by Islamic militants, an Indian official said Thursday.
Forty-six nurses have been holed up for more than a week in Tikrit, where militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have taken over.
Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said the nurses were unharmed, but were being taken Thursday to a new area under the extremist group’s control. He would not say who was moving the medical workers, but said the nurses “did not go on their own free will.”
He described the situation as one of “grave difficulty” because the area is not under the control of the Iraqi army and is not accessible to humanitarian organizations.
He denied reports that there was a bomb blast as the nurses left Tikrit, but said some received minor injuries when some glass broke as they were leaving the hospital. He said Indian embassy officials in Baghdad had spoken to some of the nurses as they left Tikrit.
Akbaruddin also said 40 Indian construction workers abducted two weeks ago near Mosul were still being held, but were safe and unharmed. About 10,000 Indians work and live in Iraq, but only about 100 are in violent, insecure areas.
The abducted construction workers were mostly from northern states including Punjab and had been employed by the Tariq Noor al-Huda construction company..
Meanwhile, Kerala Chief Minister Oomen Chandy on Thursday met External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj seeking an effective action to evacuate 46 nurses, majority of them from Kerala, from the ISIS-controlled Tikrit town in war-torn Iraq.
During his meeting, Chandy expressed concern over the safety of the nurses who are in touch with him over telephone. The nurses told Chandy that they are living in panic, as the situation is deteriorating minute-by-minute, sources said.
Chandy had a 40-minute meeting with Swaraj, who assured him of all possible help and efforts for safe evacuation of the nurses.
After his initial meeting with her, Chandy was again called back by Swaraj and was updated on the latest information on the safety of nurses, the sources said.
Swaraj has informed Chandy that the situation is not conducive for their immediate evacuation and they can only be brought back after the situation normalises, officials said.
The nurses had taken refuge in the basement of their hospital after bombing and firing took place in the vicinity of the building, the External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson had said yesterday, adding that the Indian Ambassador spoke to them and they were “safe and unharmed”.
Meanwhile, MEA has already given air tickets to nearly 1000 Indians to travel out of Iraq. 1500 Indians want to leave the country and have registered with the ministry. In Erbil also, some Indians have conveyed to MEA officers that they want to leave, the Spokesperson said.
There were about 10,000 Indians before the start of the serious strife between government troops and Sunni militants, backed by al Qaida. The militants have captured two key cities and are marching towards Baghdad. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been displaced in the fighting that broke out on June 10.
Former External Affairs Minister and senior Congress leader Salman Khurshid said things are very sensitive and in such a critical phase one must be careful about what one says so that there is no danger to anyone’s life.
“As a national imperative, as a national concern, we all have the same sentiment, same voice. We must speak in same voice,” he said here. He said efforts on the ground to get Indian citizens out of Iraq safely must not be obstructed in any way.
Asked about how he thought the government has handled the situation, he said, “I am not making any assessment. At this point the concentration must be in getting our citizens out to safety and evacuate them.”
He said that “we have been briefed” and that Congress President Sonia Gandhi had given her full support to the government to do their best that they are expected to do.