07/26/2004, 00.00
INDIA
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Last hopes for three Indian hostages in Iraq

by Nirmala Carvalho

Wife offers herself in exchange for husband. India's Prime Minister appeals for release

Mumbai (AsiaNews) – As Iraqi terrorists extend the deadline before they execute three Indian hostages, the wife of one of them appeals to the captors offering herself in exchange for her husband.

Promilla Devi, 32, appealed to the "Black Flag" terrorist group holding her husband, Tilak Raj, and two other Indian truck drivers, Sukhdev Singh and Antaryami, saying that "he travelled to Kuwait to make a small nest egg for our children and I am willing to give my life if that will bring him back."

The Indian authorities have also appealed to the hostage-takers. In a statement issued in both Arabic and English and broadcast by several Gulf region stations, Minister of State for External Affairs E Ahamed E. Ahamed said that he had "absolute faith in the Almighty Allah to give hidayath (direction) to the group keeping our people hostage so that they may release them. The people of India have great faith in the people of Iraq."

After citing the historical ties between India and Iraq, he went on to say that "Iraq has never thought of harming India", and that "there is no justification for anybody to keep innocent persons in captivity." He concluded by encouraging the kidnappers to respect Islam's values "which teach everybody to be just and fair towards the innocent."

Minister of External Affairs Natwar Singh reassured on Saturday Antaryami's father that the government would do its utmost to secure the return of the hostages. He also made an appeal on Arabic-language channel Al Jazeera calling for their release.

Despite the government's efforts the relatives of the hostages are keeping the pressure on Prime Minister Ministro Singh and President Kalam so that they may open negotiations with the hostage-takers.

The kidnappers, who have appointed a tribal leader to negotiate on their behalf, have warned the Kuwait and Gulf Link Transport (KGL) company, the hostages' employer, that they would decapitate a hostage every 72 hours if it did not pull all its employees out of Iraq.  The group also demanded on Friday that the families of people killed by US troops in Fallujah be compensated and Iraqi detainees released.

Observers suggest that the ransom request points to the fact that the kidnapping was more likely motivated by the lure of money than by any ideological reason.

Thus far, India had avoided being involved in the Iraq crisis. But as a result of the recent events its government has stopped issuing emigration permits for workers going to Iraq and has set up a crisis management group (CMG) to handle the hostage situation. The CMG has already prepared contingency plans to evacuate some 5,000 of the 100,000 Indians working in Iraq. It cannot however keep under control the 3 million Indians working in the Gulf region.

A spokesperson for Mumbai-based recruitment firm Oman Agency, which had found jobs for the hostages, stated that they were surprised KGL had sent them into a war zone. "Perhaps it was the lure of higher wages", he added. The lure of adventure led Antaryami to Kuwait, but, according to relatives, Singh and Raj were pushed by poverty.

In addition to the three Indians, the "Black Flags" group holds three Kenyans and an Egyptian diplomat.

Since last April the number of kidnappings is on the rise. So far, about 60 people have been taken hostage. Some have been liberated, but at least 6 were killed (four decapitated).

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