Sunni insurgents Thursday forced all 46 Indian women nurses to move out of a hospital in Iraq where they had been holed up, injuring three of them, officials said.
Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said there was “no reason for any anxiety” as the nurses were moved in three buses to an unknown destination by the insurgents who control large parts of Iraq.
The external affairs ministry said separately that some nurses — all of them from Kerala — suffered “minor injuries” during the shifting but that all of them were safe.
At a press conference later, the Kerala chief minister said: “…at the moment there need be no reason for any anxiety. There was an incident at that time and three nurses suffered minor injuries.”
But he said they were unable to say where the nurses were headed. Some media reports said the place could be Mosul, an insurgent stronghold.
“They (nurses) came out of their hostel in the hospital compound and have left,” said Chandy, flanked by three cabinet colleagues. He spoke to the media after meeting External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and officials here.
Chandy, however, was silent when asked if the Indian embassy in Iraq was negotiating with the Sunni insurgents after the shift from Tikrit, the hometown of deposed and executed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
“I am sorry. We are unable to reveal more information on this aspect due to constraints,” he added.
Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said the nurses were “on the road” but added there was no information about their destination.
“My understanding is that a while ago they have moved to another location. The MEA is in regular touch with the Indian embassy in Baghdad and through it with the variety of interlocutors on the ground,” he added.
He said the nurses were not being moved on “their free will”.
Asked if the insurgents had shifted them forcibly, Akbaruddin said: “In zones of conflict there is no free will. There are no expressions of free will.”
Pressed to reveal who held them, the spokesman said: “Everything need not be said.
“Our understanding is that it is for reasons and interest of their own safety that they have agreed to move out. All of them are safe and unharmed.”
He said it was “difficult time” for both officials in the ministry here in New Delhi and the Indian mission in Iraq.
A total of 25 Indian officials are now deployed in four Iraqi cities – Baghdad, Najaf, Basra and Karbala – to oversee the rescue of stranded Indians.
The nurses had Tuesday refused to board buses brought by “some English-speaking men” to the hospital in Tikrit where they have been stranded for more than two weeks.
On Wednesday they were told they would be taken to Mosul.
On Thursday, the insurgents reportedly bombed the Tikrit hospital premises, injuring the nurses, in a bid to force them to leave, reports reaching the Kerala capital said.
Some of the family members of the nurses complained in Kerala that they regretted the lack of adequate action by the Indian government to rescue the nurses.
“We have been told that yesterday (Wednesday) the Bangladeshi embassy officials in Iraq took their nationals in Tikrit to safety,” one family member said in Thiruvananthapuram. “Why can’t the Indian embassy do what the Bangladesh officials did?”
The Kerala chief minister refused to comment on the statement.
Akbaruddin said so far about 900 Indians had been provided air ticket to leave Iraq.
A total of 1,500 Indians were registered with Indian authorities to leave Iraq.
Some Indians working in Iraq had not decided whether they wanted to leave or not. “We are committed to helping every Indian national,” the spokesman said.
The plight of Indians stranded and held captive in Iraq since the Sunni insurgents started seizing territory has emerged as the first major crisis for the Narendra Modi government.