Freedom at last

Published : Sep 24, 2004 00:00 IST

Iraqi militants release the seven employees of a Kuwaiti firm, including three Indians, whom they held hostage for 41 days.

in Bahrain

THE release of seven persons, including three Indians, held hostage in Iraq marks the end of a 41-day-long crisis that went through several dramatic highs and lows. All of them, employees of a Kuwaiti transport company, were freed on September 1.

The three Indians - Antaryami Bains, Sukhdev Singh and Tilak Raj - three Kenyans and an Egyptian were taken hostage on July 21, after their trucks strayed into a prohibited zone in Falluja, which is around 50 km from Baghdad and is a centre of Iraqi resistance to the occupation. Falluja became a virtual "liberated zone" after the United States military was forced to pull out of the city in late April. However, it has been subjected to air raids by U.S. forces ever since.

The hostages, who were released at an undisclosed location, were first taken to the Egyptian Embassy. The three Indians who, according to an Indian diplomat, were in "good health under the circumstances", were later escorted to the residence of the Indian Ambassador to Iraq Brij Bhushan Tyagi. After they spoke to their families and the Minister of State for External Affairs E. Ahmed over telephone, they were taken to Baghdad airport, from where a chartered flight arranged by their employer, Kuwait and Gulf Link Transport Company (KGL), flew them to Kuwait. Under instructions from the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.), their interaction with the media in Kuwait was minimal. The Indian Embassy in Kuwait issued a statement on their behalf, in which the freed Indians thanked KGL and the Government of Kuwait for ensuring their safe return. Regarding their kidnappers, the statement said quoting the trio: "Those who were holding us treated us well and gave us food, water and a place to stay. We are thankful to them for the good treatment given to us." They were flown out of Kuwait on September 2.

The negotiations for freeing the hostages were virtually wrapped up on August 30, but the kidnappers wanted two more days for consultations before their release. The Egyptian hostage, Mohammad Ali Sanad, told Al Araybia television that they were informed on August 30 about their imminent release. "We felt very happy and we did not sleep out of our joy. All people helped us. The kidnappers are religious people and they taught us to pray. God save us and them," he said.

The countdown to freedom began on August 27. In a video aired by Al Araybia, the kidnappers belonging to the Black Banners Brigade of the Islamic Secret Army said that they were ready to free their captives, provided KGL made a public declaration that it was ceasing all its operations in Iraq. A day later, the company complied. The next four days were spent on finalising a suitable "compensation package" with the kidnappers. KGL chairman Said Dashti told international news agencies after the hostages' release that his firm paid a ransom of $500,000. He said that the kidnappers initially demanded $7 million and the release of prisoners held in the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay. Moreover, they sought a compensation for families in Falluja that suffered losses in the U.S. bombardment. Dashti acknowledged that the kidnappers scaled down their demands owing to intervention by local tribal and religious leaders and others close to the company. Diplomatic sources said that the Governments of India, Egypt and Kenya were not involved in this exercise as they had taken a collective decision not to become a party to the payment of ransom.

Talks between KGL representatives and the kidnappers were never disrupted despite the setback on August 7, when the previous Iraqi mediator, Sheikh Hisham Dulaimi, failed to get the captives released. Informed sources told Frontline that the negotiations at that stage were successfully wound up and the "compensation" was finalised at $350,000. While Dulaimi was marginalised thereafter, India fully backed KGL. The company's decision to send a chartered plane on August 7 to bring back the hostages demonstrated the seriousness of its intent and enhanced its credibility. After the August 7 fiasco, the company allowed the talks to drag on. An informed source told Frontline: "It had become apparent by then that the hostages would not be harmed and that the kidnappers could be exhausted into accepting a more reasonable ransom amount." KGL, on its part, kept the Indian Embassy in Kuwait and the Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry informed about the developments on the ground.

In Baghdad, Tyagi and India's Special Envoy Talmiz Ahmed contacted many religious and tribal leaders as well as diplomats of Arab countries who could influence the Islamic Secret Army. The Egyptian Embassy in Baghdad and the Muslim Ulema Board of Iraq are believed to have played a key role in this effort. Their exertions began to yield results in early August when reports started filtering in that the "passive pressure" put on the kidnappers persuaded them not to harm the hostages. Once the safety of the captives was ensured, other aspects relating to their release could be decided upon.

Meanwhile, KGL forged reliable contacts with the kidnappers through a prominent religious leader in Falluja. "This was never easy as we found several people in Iraq who promised us that they could influence the kidnappers. There were many false leads that we had to encounter," said KGL spokesperson Rana Abu Zaineh. Negotiations, however, gathered momentum from August 22, after the kidnappers showed a video to KGL's representatives to confirm that all the hostages were safe.

Talks also became more productive as the hostage takers began to realise that the governments of countries the hostages belonged to would not step in to raise the ransom amount. Speaking in Parliament, Ahmed, who was steering a crisis management group to tackle the problem, ruled out the Indian government paying any ransom or establishing direct contacts with the abductors.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment