Indian nurses in Iraq stranded in area controlled by militants

Kurdish Peshmerga forces raise the Kurdish flag at a checkpoint on the road leading from Kirkuk to northern Iraqi city of Tikrit on June 30, 2014. MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images

NEW DELHI -- Dozens of Indian nurses who have been stranded at an Iraqi hospital are safe but are being forced to move to a new area controlled by Islamic militants, an Indian official said Thursday.

Forty-six nurses have been holed up for more than a week in Tikrit, where militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have taken over.

Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said the nurses were unharmed, but were being taken Thursday to a new area under the extremist group's control. He would not say who was moving the medical workers, but said the nurses "did not go on their own free will."

He described the situation as one of "grave difficulty" because the area is not under the control of the Iraqi army and is not accessible to humanitarian organizations.

He denied reports that there was a bomb blast as the nurses left Tikrit, but said some received minor injuries when some glass broke as they were leaving the hospital.

He said Indian embassy officials in Baghdad had spoken to some of the nurses as they left Tikrit.

Akbaruddin also said 39 Indian construction workers abducted two weeks ago near Mosul were still being held, but were safe and unharmed.

About 10,000 Indians work and live in Iraq, but only about 100 are in violent, insecure areas.

The abducted construction workers were mostly from northern states including Punjab and had been employed by the Tariq Noor al-Huda construction company.

Embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned that the entire region is endangered by ISIS, whose gunmen have rampaged across his country in recent weeks. Facing pressure to step aside, al-Maliki said the focus must be on countering the threat - not wholesale leadership changes.

The militant group has fed off the chaos and supercharged sectarian atmosphere of Syria's civil war to seize control of a large chunk of territory there. With its recent blitz across Iraq, it has expanded its gains while also effectively erasing the border between the two countries and laying the groundwork of its proto-state.

Led by an ambitious Iraqi militant known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group this week unilaterally declared the establishment of an Islamic state, or caliphate, in the land it has seized. It also proclaimed al-Baghdadi the head of its new self-styled state governed by Shariah law and demanded that all Muslims pledge allegiance to him.

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