India's new government struggled yesterday to make headway in its first foreign crisis as it tried to secure the release of 40 construction workers being held in war-torn Iraq, home to some 10,000 Indian expatriates.
PM Narendra Modi has already dispatched a former ambassador to Baghdad to coordinate rescue efforts while the chief minister of Punjab province -- where most of the workers hail from -- has said he is willing to pay a ransom to gain their freedom.
But while India's foreign ministry has described the men as having been "kidnapped", it says it does not know who has taken them hostage and that it has not received any ransom demand.
The ministry yesterday said it has learnt the location of the workers and was pursuing "every avenue" in a "tenuous security situation".
The ministry was working with aid agencies in Iraq including the Red Crescent Society which said the workers had been taken away by armed men while they were working on a stadium in Mosul. But the exact identity of their captors was not known.
Underlining the confusion, some of the family members told Indian media they had spoken to several of the workers who denied they were being "held hostage".
While India has a record of evacuating large numbers of its nationals from war zones, including from Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War and from Lebanon in 2007, analysts say the situation this time is complicated by a variety of factors.
In a front-page editorial headlined "First Foreign Policy Test for Modi", The Hindustan Times said the prevailing chaos in Iraq made it hard for New Delhi to work out who to interact with. The paper also warned many expatriates could resist efforts to evacuate them, saying most of a group of around 50 nurses working in Tikrit had told the Indian mission they would like to stay put or be moved to other Iraqi towns.