Deaths of 12 workers spark angry protests, but story’s different in India, whose captives are instead released
BY DAN MORRISON
September 2, 2004
BOMBAY, India - In Nepal, mobs rampaged through Kathmandu yesterday, furious about Iraqi militants' murders of 12 Nepalese hostages on Tuesday.
In neighboring India, relieved families embraced joyfully in front of TV cameras after learning that their loved ones, also captives in Iraq, had just been released.
Two sets of hostages. Two groups of militants. Two wildly different outcomes.
For Nepalese, the grief yesterday was compounded by the feeling that were their government not so weak, their country so poor, their workers would still be alive.
For many in Nepal - already chafing under a stalemated civil war, deep poverty and lack of opportunity - the videotaped massacre of 12 migrant workers was the last straw. Yesterday angry crowds attacked a Kathmandu mosque, offices of the leading television network and dozens of job-recruitment agencies. The capital was under curfew last night.
"This was just waiting to happen," said Suman Pradhan, an editor at The Nation newsweekly. "It indicates a deeper, deeper, malaise in Nepalese society."
It's impossible to know with certainty what logic may have guided the militants' actions, but in many ways, the Nepalese laborers, kidnapped Aug. 19 en route to Baghdad from Jordan, caught all the wrong breaks. Their kidnappers, the Army of Ansar al-Sunna, were driven by anti-American ideology. They demanded that Nepal stop sending workers to aid the occupation - an essentially impossible task, as the government had already banned its workers from traveling there.
A small country, the world's 12th poorest, Nepal didn't command the international respect or attention that India did for its hostages in Iraq, never mind France, whose high-profile efforts to free two journalists being held in Iraq have garnered support from a broad spectrum of Arab leaders and Muslims worldwide.
The group holding the Nepalese took pains to link them to the occupation, even draping one hostage with an American flag in a video released Sunday. They had been hired by a Jordan- based company for jobs in Iraq.
While Nepalese diplomats appealed for the release of their hostages on Arabic language TV and radio, "the government didn't make its case forcefully," Pradhan said. "It was the same case that the Indians had, but it had less effect."
"The government did not do enough to get their release," Sudarshan Khadka, the brother of Ramesh Khadka, one of the victims, told The Associated Press.
On the other hand, the Indians were part of a group of seven whose captors may have been motivated more by money than ideology, Indian officials say.
The seven - including Kenyans and an Egyptian, all of whom were freed yesterday - were abducted July 21 by a group calling itself the Black Banners Brigade. Among the militants' demands were compensation for victims of fighting in Fallujah and a pullout from Iraq by the hostages' employer, trucking company Kuwaiti Gulf Links.
India publicly refused to pay and put on a full-court diplomatic press through Arab governments, Islamic religious leaders and the media. Last week Kuwaiti Gulf Links announced it was pulling out of Iraq. The company paid a $1 million ransom to secure the drivers' freedom, according to the Indian Express newspaper.
While India and Nepal had similar positions on last year's invasion of Iraq - both quietly opposed it and declined to contribute troops - "Nepal is so poor that that they don't matter diplomatically," said Eswaran Sridharan, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Institute for the Advanced Study of India, in New Delhi. "It could be read that that's why their nationals had to pay with their lives."
Feeling helpless at home, helpless abroad, mobs ransacked the Kathmandu offices of Kantipur television yesterday, "spouting anger and venom at the establishment," Pradhan said. Police fired into the air to disperse rioters who - amid shouts of "Revenge!" - attacked the capital's only mosque. It was an unusual attack for Nepal, which doesn't have a history of strong Hindu-Muslim enmity.
Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba urged "everyone to have patience, show tolerance and unity at this hour of grief."
Elsewhere, one demonstrator was killed in clashes with police. And dozens of companies that send workers to jobs in the Middle East and Southeast Asia - Nepal's No. 1 source of income - were torched.
"Whether you sent people to Iraq or not, they had their way," said Prasiha Rana, an employment broker. "They burned my office."
Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.