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India's Foreign Ministry says 40 Indian construction workers kidnapped in Iraq

NEW DELHI - Forty Indian citizens working for a Turkish construction company near the Iraqi town of Mosul have been kidnapped, India's Foreign Ministry said Wednesday.

Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said there had been no contact with the kidnappers, and no ransom demand had been received. Over the past week, militants have overrun Mosul and seized wide swathes of territory as they stormed toward the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

It was not immediately clear when the Indian workers were abducted. Akbaruddin said they were mostly from northern Indian states including Punjab, and had been working for the Tariq Noor al-Huda construction company in Iraq.

Relatives in the Punjabi city of Amritsar said they had received phone calls from some of the Indian workers on Sunday, five days after Mosul was captured.

Gurprender Kaur said her brother called and told her the workers were alone, in trouble and needed help. She did not give any further details about that call on Sunday, or say when she had last heard from him.

Another woman cried and clutched a family photograph as she spoke with Indian journalists in Amritsar about her missing son.

"Our children are in trouble. We want them back safe and sound," Ranjeet Kaur told Indian TV news agency NNIS. "We want the government to help us."

There are about 10,000 Indian citizens working and living in Iraq, but only about 100 are in violent, insecure areas, Foreign Ministry spokesman Akbaruddin said.

That includes 46 Indian nurses working in a hospital in the Iraqi town of Tikrit, but Akbaruddin said humanitarian organizations had been in touch with them and they were all safe.

"We are willing to assist any of the nurses who wish to return to India," he said, adding that "several Indian nurses prefer to stay back" in Iraq. They have all been advised to avoid travelling by road.

India sent a senior diplomat to Baghdad on Wednesday, and planned to bring back some citizens on Friday. The government also opened a call centre to take phone calls from worried families with relatives in Iraq. By Wednesday afternoon, it had received 60 calls, he said.

National TV station NDTV broadcast a recording of a phone call with one of the nurses in Tikrit on Tuesday.

"We are afraid. We have no security here," a woman identified as nurse Marina Jose said over a crackling phone connection. "All the military, police, everybody escaped from here. Only we are here." She said the nurses were in touch with their families, most of whom are in the southern Indian state of Kerala.

On Wednesday, Iraq's prime minister said Iraqi troops had launched a counteroffensive as the fighters, led by the al-Qaida breakaway group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, laid siege to the country's main oil refinery.

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