Three weeks after three Indians and four others were abducted and held hostage in Iraq, the suspense continues.
The kidnappers -- the hitherto unknown Holders of the Black Banners -- have threatened to kill the three Indians, three Kenyans and an Egyptian unless their employer pulls out of Iraq.
The abductors have demanded a large ransom and have also insisted that Iraq detainees be freed from the US and Kuwait prisons.
All the hostages are truck drivers who worked for the Kuwait Gulf Link transport company.
The hostage crisis has kept the Indian government on tenterhooks.
Even as the families of the Indians -- Antaryami Bains, Tilak Raj and Sukhdev Singh -- wait with bated breath, a Crisis Management Group set up by the Indian government has been working hard to ensure their release.
The man who has plunged headlong into handling the hostage crisis is Minister of State for External Affairs E Ahmed. The hostage drama forced him last week to cancel his four-nation tour of Singapore, Malaysia, Samoa and Brunei.
In an exclusive interview to Deputy Managing Editor George Iype, Ahmed, who heads the Crisis Management Group, explains how the government is handling the hostage crisis.
It is more than three weeks since the hostage crisis began. Where is it going?
I have been spending all my days handling the hostage crisis. We have been meeting every day for more than 15 hours, trying to deal with the situation and to ensure the release of the hostages. But frankly speaking, we do not know now when they will be released.
Why? What has gone wrong in handling the situation?
Nothing has gone wrong from our part. We are always in touch with the Kuwait Gulf Link transport company, which is negotiating for the release of the hostages. We are still hopeful of positive developments.
A hostage crisis is never a silly matter.
We have to remain patient. It may take days for negotiations to succeed.
Last week you said the negotiations had reached a sensitive stage and the hostages would be released
Yes, we have been always hopeful of their release. Last week the tribal leader, Hishan Al-Dulaimi, whom the Kuwaiti company had engaged to negotiate with the abductors, nearly clinched a deal. But the deal broke down soon.
Why is the Indian government not directly negotiating with the abductors?
Why should the Indian government talk directly to the abductors?
We feel it will create a bad trend. The government is not involved in the negotiations directly. We have our own constraints. We have our own limitations. There are hundreds of Indian workers currently in Iraq and Kuwait.
If the Indian government talks directly to the abductors and releases the hostages, it could lead to similar abductions there. So we have insisted that it is the duty of the Kuwaiti company to negotiate with the abductors for the hostages' freedom.
You said India has limitations or constraints in dealing with the situation. What are the limitations?
What I said was that India cannot directly negotiate with the abductors. It is not an easy task for us. It is a strategic decision.
Similarly, we have insisted that we would not send Indian troops for peace keeping in Iraq. But it does not mean that India is not trying for their release.
The government is continuing its efforts to secure the freedom of the Indians and others. I have been personally spending close to 15 hours every day only on the hostage crisis these days.
We are not sitting idle.
The abductors have also demanded ransom money. Will India pay ransom?
We have very clearly said that India will not pay any ransom for the release of the hostages.
Some reports say some of the hostages may have been killed.
Our information says that no one has been killed.
Who do think are the abductors?
Our information is that the Holders of the Black Banners are sympathisers of the resistance movement in Iraq.
Do you think they have any links with Al Qaeda?
I do not know.
Have you sought American help?
No, we have not. Why should we? The hostage crisis is something we are handling effectively, and diplomatically. We are sure we will succeed in our efforts.
Has India banned Indians from travelling to Iraq?
Yes. We have asked Indians against travelling to Iraq. We have also ordered Indian missions in Kuwait and Jordan to contact the governments there to seek their cooperation in preventing the movement of Indian nationals across their borders to Iraq.
When do you expect that the hostage crisis would blow over?
We expect some positive developments soon.
Image: Rahil Shaikh | Photographs: AFP/Getty Images