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Transcript of Media Briefing by Official Spokesperson (June 24, 2014)

June 25, 2014

Official Spokesperson (Shri Syed Akbaruddin): Good afternoon friends and thank you very much for being here this afternoon. I would like to apologise for having kept you waiting for a short while. As I have said previously, it is usually because we are trying to reconfirm information that we have received, and that accounts for the delay. Notwithstanding that, my apologies for having kept you waiting.

It has been a busy day for us today. The situation of Indian nationals in Iraq remains a matter of importance for the Government of India. Since I had last briefed you yesterday I now have additional information to share with you on this issue. This information pertains to both Indian nationals who are in the conflict zone in Iraq as well as Indian nationals who are outside the conflict zone.

Since the zone of conflict is an area where security and safety of Indian nationals is of utmost concern, I will first try and give you a readout of the situation there. Following that I will provide you information regarding other areas where there are Indian nationals but there is no immediate threat to their safety and security.

In the zone of conflict, we have repeatedly told you that there are a very limited number of Indian nationals. It is also the region where the security environment continues to be volatile. We have, therefore, today reiterated our advice to those Indian nationals still there, to remain indoors. As you are aware, there were three small groups of Indian nationals in this area. I will try and explain to you what the status of each of them is as of today.

We have been in touch with several Indian nationals in this zone of conflict. Let me first take those who are not in captivity. I am happy to inform you that we have, with the help of the local authorities, been able to evacuate 17 more of our nationals from the zone of conflict. This was just done a short while ago. I was waiting for confirmation before I came to you, and that is what accounts for the delay. So, 17 more Indian nationals who were in the zone of conflict are no longer there. They are now in Baghdad and will go back to their homes very shortly.

The second group of Indian nationals was the nurses. We have been in touch with the 46 nurses. I can also confirm to you that they remain safe and there has not been any threat to their safety and security. They have food stocks, nobody has intruded into their premises. We remain in touch with them, we are constantly advising them, and we will take it from there on a day-by-day basis.

That leaves the third set of Indian nationals, those who are in captivity. I can reconfirm to you again today - despite the sceptics who think that this is a non-issue and they may not be in captivity let me reconfirm to them - that they remain in captivity but have not been hurt or harmed. With that I will close this issue relating to Indian nationals in the zone of conflict.

Let me now describe to you our activities relating to Indian nationals outside this zone of conflict. Our understanding as of now is airports in Irbil, Baghdad, Najaf and Basra are open to normal commercial traffic. Therefore, we are issuing an advisory today telling all Indian nationals who wish to travel voluntarily that they can take commercial flights out from these airports. We will provide them all assistance that is required if they so wish to travel.

Our help lines in Baghdad will be working on 24/7 basis. Let me read out to you the numbers of the help lines in Baghdad. These are: (1) 009647704444899, and (2) 009647704843247.

In addition to this, taking into account that a significant number of Indian nationals are also resident in the southern cities of Iraq, we have decided to set up camp offices of the Indian Embassy in Najaf, Karbala, and Basra. These offices will provide facilitation of every sort to any Indian national who requires assistance.

Finally, in consultation with the Iraqi authorities we are setting up a Joint Committee which will handle issues relating to those Indian nationals who have problems about their immigration status. On our side there will be officials from the Embassy, on the Iraqi side there will be officials from the Home and Interior Ministry relating to immigration, so that those Indian nationals who may have problems relating to their immigration status can be facilitated and assisted to travel if they so desire to travel.

In essence, today we have been able to move in a positive manner on both fronts. In the zone of conflict, the number of Indian nationals now that remains there has been reduced by a further 17. In other areas, we are moving to assuage concerns and facilitate the voluntary return of those who are desirous of coming back to India. I think that is what I have to say.

If you have any questions, as is usual I will answer six questions relating to this, and I am willing to answer a couple of questions on other issues beyond this.

Question: Akbar, can we know of the condition of the Indian nationals in Kirkuk?

Official Spokesperson: Let me be very clear that this is not a general remark. There are issues in every place in terms of concerns but we are working with every organisation, with every possible avenue and trying to assist. I will not get into general details about conditions of Indians in ‘x’ place or ‘y’ place. I have given you a broad outline, and that remains our understanding. Those areas where there are conflicts, I have explained to you, are areas of serious security concern. I have explained to you what we are doing. And those areas beyond that, I have explained to you what I have.

Question: Yesterday Iraq lost its control over borders with Syria and Jordan. Now the ISIS is in complete control of the entire western frontier of Iraq. The question is, how does it impinge on the 39 Indian hostages?

Official Spokesperson: Rajiv, in a sensitive situation when our nationals are captive we are focused on trying to assist them. At this stage, I have told you yesterday that we have been able to knock on doors, those doors are opening. I have again told you today that we have further confirmation as of today that they remain in captivity, however, have not been harmed. We will take it day-by-day because captivity and safety are a contradiction in terms. Therefore, I do not want to go down that track and explain to you further what the levels of this concern are. The situation remains a matter of concern for us.

Question: These 17 people evacuated, which States are they from?

Official Spokesperson: I am afraid we will not be able to share that information because this is a matter of operational detail at this stage. Once they fly out of Iraq back to their homes, you are free to find out from them. But they are people who have been through traumatic situations. We assist them as Indian nationals. At this stage we did not get down to tabulating their regional affiliations, the language they speak, etc. They were all Indian nationals and we have helped them as Indian nationals.

Question: Given that, as you told us initially, there were about 120 Indians in the conflict zone to start with and 34 have been evacuated, are we, therefore, basically talking about the 40 in captivity and the 46 in Tikrit? Are these the only Indians in the crisis zone now?

Official Spokesperson: Charu, in a conflict zone, in an area where the security situation is tenuous, we can give you the drift of the situation. Please understand that there are no possibilities of pinning down exact numbers. What we can certainly say is that the numbers today are 34 less, as you said, than what they were at the beginning. You also are aware, we have given you an estimate of the numbers. In such situations it is best to work one-by-one rather than to jump to conclusions based on numbers and then try and prick people’s balloons by saying, ‘’x’ number was there and ‘y’ is now available’, etc. We have told you the broad areas. And we remain intent on helping every Indian national. This is not a matter of numbers. It is a matter of helping every Indian national in (a) the conflict zone, and (b) beyond those areas. Both these numbers are approximations.

If there are no more questions on Iraq, are there any questions on anything else?

Question: Sir, Tamil Nadu CM Jayalalithaa today wrote a letter to PM. She said that India should not recognise the International Maritime Boundary Line. At the same time we are looking in to this issue. On the 18th some Indian fishermen were arrested, on the 19th also some fishermen were arrested, and on the 23rd night some fishermen were arrested. Our External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had a meeting with the Ambassadors of our neighbourhood countries. Have you spoken anything about this Indian fishermen issue with the Ambassadors? This issue is still going on. What is your response in this matter because this is a humanitarian issue that continues to remain?

Official Spokesperson: First of all, when our Ambassadors meet the External Affairs Minister they discuss all areas of importance. And certainly the issue of fishermen is an area of importance. And if you would like a confirmation, I can say so that this matter was discussed.

As of today there are 64 Indian fishermen held in captivity in Sri Lanka. We are, as is usual, pursuing this matter through normal diplomatic channels as we have done in the past. We will remain fixed on trying and resolving this situation at the earliest because, as you said, we see this as a humanitarian issue, we see this as a livelihood issue, and we will continue to take this matter up with the Sri Lankan authorities.

For the present, we have had consular access to them and, therefore, we have provided assistance to some of them. Some of them were sick and they have been provided medicines. The others have been provided basic amenities such as clothes, soap and other amenities. And we will continue to pursue this matter with the Sri Lankan Government.

Question: Akbar, my question is related to EAM’s visit to Dhaka which starts tomorrow. Are you expecting any sort of a breakthrough vis-a-vis land boundary agreement or Teesta water sharing during this visit?

Official Spokesperson: Please wait till the outcome of the visit. Outcomes cannot be told to the media before they are actually discussed and agreed to. So, please wait for the outcome. The visit is a significant one. It is a visit which we lay great importance on. Since India and Bangladesh are two very friendly neighbours we are working on a whole host of issues. The outcomes we will share with you once this is done.

Question: Akbar, there are reports again that the External Affairs Ministry’s proposal for visa free arrival for Bangladeshis has been shot down by the Home Ministry. What do you have to say on that?

Official Spokesperson: You are aware of my views on this that I do not discuss in this forum any issue of inter-Ministerial nature. I said this before. Please, you can ask me fifty times on issues of intra-Ministerial nature and I will not respond. However, I can confirm to you there is no proposal on the table that is intending to provide visa free travel for Bangladeshi nationals. I have said this before, let me reconfirm it. There is no proposal on the table that intends to provide visa free travel for nationals of Bangladesh to India.

Question: This is about India’s decision to ratify that additional protocol. There are reports that it was intentionally timed with Prime Minister Modi’s visit to US in September. Your comments please!

Official Spokesperson: You know the protocol additional to India’s safeguards agreement with the IAEA for the application of safeguards to civilian nuclear facilities was actually signed on 15th May 2009 after the approval of the Cabinet. So, we go back five years to the decision to sign this. Now, such protocols are signed by several other countries which have advanced nuclear capabilities such as China, Russia, USA, France and the UK.

As per article 9 of that protocol which was signed between India and the IAEA, there is a provision which says that once India notifies in writing to the IAEA that statutory and constitutional requirements for entry into force have been completed, it will enter into force. Now, these requirements have recently been completed with the President signing the instrument of ratification for the additional protocol. The protocol therefore will now enter into force once the instrument of ratification is conveyed by our Mission in Vienna to the IAEA.

You may recall that the India-specific safeguards agreement was negotiated with the IAEA and signed on 2ndFebruary 2009. This was the safeguards agreement for civilian facilities that India had voluntarily decided and identified for application of IAEA safeguards. The additional protocol merely facilitates the implementation of the IAEA safeguards as per India’s safeguards agreement. The ratification of the additional protocol is, therefore, in line with India’s international commitments. And the process has been under way for some time.

The additional protocol is also consistent with India’s national interest as a responsible nuclear state and allows us to continue to build civil nuclear cooperation with our partners in the international community. From this you can understand that the process began quite some time ago. There is a procedure, that procedure has now been completed. Please do not link it with decisions or programmes that are in the future.

Question: India had also signed a supplementary convention on compensation-related issues. What is the status of that? Has India ratified it?

Official Spokesperson: I think you will have to ask the Department of Atomic Energy which deals with this. They are the line Ministry in this. Once there is anything about ratification of this which requires the Ministry of External Affairs, we will let you know.

Question: Sir, there are a number of senior people holding important positions abroad as High Commissioners or Ambassadors who are not part of the Indian Foreign Service. In the past, when a government has changed such people usually resigned. That has been the norm at least in some cases. Now, these people who are holding these posts as High Commissioners or Ambassadors, has anyone offered to resign in these last five, six weeks; or have their resignations been asked for?

Official Spokesperson: Shrinjoy, these are personnel issues. First of all, you have combined a norm with sometime. Either it is a norm or it is sometime. A norm means, it always happens. What you have said is something which may have happened in the past. But as far as I know, right now not to my knowledge has this been an issue so far.

Question: This question was touched by you yesterday because the meeting was inconclusive. I am talking about the eight Head of Missions meeting which was chaired by EAM. Could you through some light on that? The Prime Minister is giving a lot of importance to the neighbouring countries and there were specific issues discussed. Has anything transpired from that meeting?

Official Spokesperson: I can confirm, like I did to him, that all issues of importance with the neighbourhood were discussed and considered. The effort was to have an integrated approach to the neighbourhood, learning from experiences with one country so that best practices can be identified and implemented elsewhere.

As you are aware, as far as India is concerned, the Prime Minister has already clearly signalled that the neighbourhood is for us a priority. And this meeting is yet another facet of that approach. We have had very interesting discussions yesterday. These are obviously in the nature of brainstorming sessions. So, it is not in our mandate to share brainstorming session outcomes to you unless they are translated into actual policy. When they are translated into actual policy, I am certain you would know.

Question: Sir, back to Tamil Nadu fishermen issue. Is there any timeframe that the Government of India is going to give to Sri Lankan naval forces for the fishermen to be brought back to India? The same thing is happening on the western coast side also but the neighbouring countries have never arrested our fishermen. Why only in southern coastal part, especially the Tamil Nadu fishermen are being targeted by the Sri Lankan naval forces? Are you justifying it by way of providing soaps, towels, that giving a message to the fishermen community that they are being taken care of well by the Government of India or are you trying give a message that they are going to be brought back to India very soon and it will not happen in future?

Official Spokesperson: First of all, I think factually the problems of fishermen on our western coast are more acute. There have been fishermen from our western side who are in jails in Pakistan for much, much longer time. So, I think it is not fair for you to tell that this is not a phenomenon elsewhere.

Secondly, you have seen that in the last few days there have been serious efforts and fishermen have been released from time to time. We will continue with this. Sri Lanka is a friendly neighbour. We will try to impress on them through all possible diplomatic means that these are ordinary fishermen who are pursuing their livelihood, and this is a humanitarian issue.

When we provide assistance of basic amenities, it is to provide some comfort while we work on the bigger issues. If your view is that until the bigger issues are solved do not provide them basic help, I do not think that is the way to go about. Every bit of assistance to Indian nationals who are in difficulties is something that the Government of India is committed to providing, and will continue to do so.

Thank you.

(Concluded)

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