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Iraqi Militants Free Hostages After 6-Week Ordeal - 2004-09-01

Seven truck drivers held hostage in Iraq have been released after six weeks in captivity. The militant group that held the men, who are from India, Kenya, and Egypt, had successfully forced their Kuwaiti employer to withdraw from Iraq in exchange for the hostages' freedom.

Pictures of the seven hostages broadcast on the al-Arabiya television channel showed the men appearing healthy and relaxed after their release by a militant group.

Three Indians, three Kenyans, and an Egyptian, all truck drivers, were seized on July 21 by a group whose name loosely translates as the Holders of the Black Banner.

None of those countries have troops deployed in Iraq. But the militant group demanded that their employer, the Kuwait and Gulf Link Transport Company, withdraw from Iraq because, it said, it was wrong to help the American occupation. The militants dropped an earlier demand that the company pay compensation to victims of the American air-strikes on the city of Fallujah.

In India, the crisis highlighted the plight of tens of thousands of migrant workers who go overseas each year in search of work. Many are the victims of unscrupulous employment agents, who charge exorbitant fees to secure jobs. Some, especially truck drivers, have been asked to work in Iraq when they had been promised jobs in Kuwait.

Vipan Kumar Sharma, 26, paid an agent roughly $2600 to work as a truck driver in Kuwait, but was then required to drive to the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. He narrowly escaped injury when his convoy was attacked by insurgents. With the help of the Indian embassy, he later returned to India unemployed and in debt.

He says he is angry that he got himself into that situation. But he thinks about the number of people who were killed or wounded, and that he could have been one of them. So it is better for him to stay home where he can try to pursue the employment agents to get his money back.

Asked about the three Indian hostages in Iraq, while they were still held, Mr. Sharma was pessimistic.

"From what I witnessed in Iraq, he says, I do not think they will let those people go. But there is a God, so who knows."

In India, relatives of the missing men began celebrating the release of their loved ones. Speaking while his son Antaryami was still held captive, 58-year-old Ram Murti knew what he would do once his son was freed.

He says, I will never let him go just anywhere again. I will keep him right in front of my eyes.