Mon, Jul 26, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Hostage's wife offers her life for his

AFP , DHARAMPUR, INDIA

Promilla Devi, wife of Iraq hostage Tilak Raj, sits with her children and relatives at her home in Dharampur, India, on Saturday.

PHOTO: AFP

The wife of one of three Indian truckers held hostage by Iraqi insurgents has begged his captors to show mercy.

Calling the insurgent hostage-takers her brothers, Promilla Devi, 32, said she was willing to offer her own life to save that of her husband, Tilak Raj, breadwinner for her and their three children.

"He travelled to Kuwait to make a small nest for our children and today I am willing to give my life if that will bring him back," she wept in Dharampur village 450km from New Delhi.

Raj spent 18 months trying to convince his wife that a stint in the Gulf would earn them enough to pay for wedding dowries for their two daughters, ages five and 11, and fund a proper education for their two-year-old son.

"And how I weep today that I let my dear husband convince me. Punish me, but you are my brothers and I forgive you for what you have done, but please let my husband come back," she said.

"I will pray for you [and] your families for their long life, but please do not harm my husband," Devi said.

Raj and two other Indian truckers, Sukhdev Singh and Antaryami, three Kenyans and an Egyptian are being held by a previously unknown Iraqi group calling itself Black Flags.

The captors have warned that the Kuwait and Gulf Link Trans-port firm, for which the seven men worked, must pull out of Iraq or they will behead one captive every 72 hours, beginning after a newly-extended deadline of 4pm GMT Monday.

On Friday, the group made another demand seeking payment of "damages" to families of people killed or maimed by US troops in Fallujah and the release of Iraqi detainees from US and Kuwaiti prisons.

Raj and Antaryami are from two neighboring villages in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh, which sent six young men to the Gulf to haul cargo as employees of the Kuwaiti firm in November 2002.

Relatively well-to-do Antaryami flew to Kuwait for adventure, according to his family, but it was poverty that drove Raj and Sukhdev Singh, the third hostage, to Kuwait for work.

Raj's family has now become a focus for sympathy, with creditors who lent him 80,000 rupees (US$1,740) to help pay for his trip to Kuwait suspending their demands for payment as Devi struggles to make ends meet.

"The creditors are telling her that they will accept their money only when Tilak Raj is free and begins to earn," said Dharampur's elected chief Asha Rani.

"People in other villages, even strangers, are praying for this family," she said. Further action includes rallies, vigils and street protests by Hindu priests, women and children in the state's Una district.

Raj's elder brother, Balwinder Singh, made a fervent appeal to the captors.

"My brother went to earn bread for his family. He did not go to fight anyone's war, and today we accept any conditions of the captors but please, please let him come home," said Singh, also breaking down in tears.

"For heaven's sake, Tilak Raj has three starving children ... The 10,000 rupees he sent two months ago is gone and his wife has no strength to beat at the doors in Delhi," said an uncle, Kashmiri Lal, who worked as a power plant operator in Saudi Arabia in the late 1990s.

Anxious relatives of the two other Indian captives are camping in the Indian capital to pressure top officials to open negotiations with the hostage-takers in Iraq.

Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh on Saturday told the camping relatives that he was hopeful the captives would be freed soon.

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