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India nurses in Iraq conflict 'to be freed'

04 july 2014, 14:53
Shi'ite Muslims take part in a candlelight protest against the ongoing conflict in Iraq. ©Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee
Shi'ite Muslims take part in a candlelight protest against the ongoing conflict in Iraq. ©Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee

A group of 46 Indian nurses trapped in Iraq are to be freed, one of them told AFP Friday, in a rare piece of positive news in a crisis threatening "Syria-like chaos".

The nurses, who were working at a hospital in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit when a swift jihadist-led offensive began last month, are currently being held in the militant-held city of Mosul.

They will move to the Kurdish regional capital Arbil where Indian officials are waiting to receive them and fly them home.

Their confinement, along with the abduction of 39 other Indian workers in Mosul, has put new Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government under increased pressure in its first foreign crisis, and has been one of several cases of foreign workers being caught up in Iraq's violence.

"Some here ... they are saying ... we will go to Arbil," Tincy Thomas, one of the nurses, told AFP by telephone, adding that the group had recently been moved to Mosul from Tikrit, where their ordeal began on June 11.

An Indian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the group were expected later on Friday in Arbil, which is a short drive from Mosul but has been insulated from the unrest.

The diplomat said that a team of Indian government officials were waiting in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, and that arrangements were being made to fly the nurses back to India.

39 others still held

He said that the group was separate from another 39 Indian workers being held in Mosul, Iraq's second-biggest city and the first to fall in a jihadist-led offensive that has overrun swathes of territory north and west of Baghdad.

The Indian estimates that around 120 of its nationals have been caught up in the unrest in Iraq, where some 10,000 Indian expatriates are working.

The Indian foreign ministry last month announced it would stop granting its nationals permission to travel to Iraq for work, while it advised those travelling for other purposes to cancel their plans.

Along with the Indian workers caught up in the violence, dozens of Turkish nationals have also been seized.

More than 30 Turkish truck drivers were freed on Thursday after three weeks in captivity, but a separate group of almost 50 Turks seized in an attack on the Turkish consulate in Mosul last month remain in captivity.

Militants led by the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group launched a lightning offensive on June 9, and swiftly took control of large chunks of five provinces, sparking a crisis that has alarmed world leaders.

More than 2,000 people were killed as a result of last month's violence, with the militant onslaught displacing hundreds of thousands of people and putting pressure on Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

UN special envoy Nickolay Mladenov has warned that if Iraq does not follow its constitutional political process, it risks descending into "Syria-like chaos".

"Iraq will never be the same as before Mosul," he told AFP.

US General Martin Dempsey, the top American military officer, has told reporters that Iraqi forces will likely need help to retake militant-held territory where foreign nationals are being held.

"If you are asking me will the Iraqis, at some point, be able to go back on the offensive to recapture the part of Iraq that they've lost... probably not by themselves," he said.

But he added this did not necessarily mean the United States would have to take military action.

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