Sat, Jul 31, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Indians rally for Iraq hostages

DEADLINE As family members of a truck driver kidnapped in Iraq anxiously awaited word on their loved one's fate, villagers were taking their anger out on the government


Hundreds of people blocked traffic in northern India on yesterday in protest against the government's failure to win the release of three men held hostage in Iraq, as a deadline set by the kidnappers drew near.

Villagers squatted on a state highway leading to the home of Antaryami, one of seven foreign truck drivers being held by militants, who threatened to kill one of them by 7pm yesterday.

His captors released a videotape showing a masked man pointing an automatic rifle at Antaryami, who looked frightened and was sweating.

"If something happens to him, we will burn government offices and the government will be responsible," said his sister Harjinder Kaur in Una in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh.

Groups of protestors sat on railway tracks, disrupting train services.

The kidnappers have demanded that the Kuwaiti transport company the seven men worked for should stop doing business in Iraq or they will behead the men one by one.

Three Kenyans and an Egyptian, employed along with the Indians, are among the hostages of an Iraqi group that calls itself the "Black Flags." It has not said who they would kill first.

Antaryami's father urged the kidnappers to free his son, saying they were poor people.

"I fold my hands and ask you to release my son, your demands have to do with the government and not with poor people like us," Ram Murthi said.

India has no troops in Iraq, but hundreds of poor Indians have gone there to work -- many as support staff, including chefs, kitchen assistants, accountants and bus drivers for the US military.

The Indian government voiced its deep anxiety about the three and stressed none would return if freed, the foreign ministry said after guerrillas threatened to kill on yesterday one of seven men they were holding.

"We are are deeply disturbed by this development and share the sentiment of concern and anxiety of the family members," Junior Foreign Minister Edappakath Ahamed said in a statement.

Ahamed urged the guerrillas to set the Indians free, saying they were poor men who had gone to Kuwait to find jobs and were not working for forces in Iraq.

The government's latest expression of anxiety came a day Pakistan confirmed that two of its nationals, employed by an Arab firm doing contract work for a US company in Iraq, were executed by their kidnappers.

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