Iraq crisis: First major test for PM Narendra Modi as 40 Indian workers are seized in Mosul

There are also concerns for 46 nurses stranded in the city of Tikrit

Delhi

India's newly elected leader is confronting his first major crisis after it was confirmed 40 Indian construction workers have been kidnapped in the Iraqi city of Mosul - seized by Islamist fighters last week.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi dispatched a senior envoy to Iraq after it emerged families of the workers employed by a Turkish firm had not heard from the men for several days and Indian officials in Iraq had failed to make contact. There are also concerns for a further 46 Indian nurses, stranded in the city of Tikrit, which is also in the control of fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil).

“Forty Indian workers of the Tariq Noor Al Huda company in Mosul have been kidnapped,” foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin told the media in Delhi. “We have not received any calls of any nature asking for a ransom. It is not known where they are being held. Even the international Red Crescent is not aware of their location.”

Mr Modi, who was elected in a landslide victory in May, sent a senior envoy, Suresh Reddy, a former Indian ambassador to Iraq, to liaise with officials in Baghdad. Meanwhile, Mr Akbaruddin said the government  were speaking to various organisations to try and find out what had happened to the workers.

Indian media said many of the abducted workers were from the northern Punjab state. Gurpinder Kaur, the sister of Manjinder Singh, one of those who is missing, said she had been told by her brother on Sunday that they were in the custody of Isil but had heard nothing from him since then.

“I have received a call from the ministry but we want action,” she told the Asian News Agency. “The ministry must first search the whereabouts of my brother and the other boys.”

It is not known how many foreign nationals may be being held by the Isil fighters. It is known that around 80 Turkish citizens are in the custody of the militants after the Turkish consulate in Mosul was overrun a week ago. Around 50 Turkish nationals were held in that incident and another 30 Turkish truck drivers were detained shortly afterwards.

 

The construction workers are among millions of people from India, and elsewhere across South Asia, who travel to the Middle East for work. The Indian government's latest figures claim there are just under 22m Indians living or working abroad.

The expatriate Indian workforce sends back more remittances than those form any other nation. Figures collated the World Bank show that in 2013, Indians working overseas sent home the equivalent of £41bn. “Remittances have become a major component of the balance of payments of nations,” said a senior bank official.

Indian officials said there were around 10,000 Indian workers in Iraq. Most of them are working in areas largely unaffected by the conflict but officials have trying to get in touch with them in recent days as the security situation had worsened.

Among those there are concerns for are 45 nurses, many from the southern state of Kerala, who are trapped in the city of Tikrit, the birthplace of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Nurses interviewed by Indian media said they had been treating people injured in street fighting.

Mr Akbaruddin said the Red Crescent has contacted the nurses and was providing assistance. “We are willing to assist any of the nurses who wish to return to India,” he said. He said some nurses had indicated they wished to stay in Iraq. All have been advised to avoid traveling by road.

Some have likened the challenge confronting Mr Modi to the 1999 hijacking of Indian Airlines flight 814 and its crew of 178 people by Pakistani militants. One of the passenger was killed; the others were released after the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee agreed to release three militants from Indian custody.

The militants were later implicated in a series of incidents, including the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl.

Kanchan Gupta, a conservative journalist and former press aide to Mr Vajpayee said: “It's a challenge. The government will be tested.”

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