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T. Gopikrishna freed from Islamic State captivity says: I am Lucky to be alive

Indian academic T. Gopikrishna says the bad dreams about his 414-day ordeal as a hostage still haunt him after his rescue from Islamic State (IS) captivity in Libya

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Members of forces loyal to Libya’s U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) guard a lookout point in the coastal city of Sirte during a military operation to clear the area of Islamic State militants, Sept. 19, 2016. BenarNews

October 4, 2016: Indian academic T. Gopikrishna says the bad dreams about his 414-day ordeal as a hostage still haunt him after his rescue from Islamic State (IS) captivity in Libya earlier this month.

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“It was a very difficult period. I never thought I would be able to see my family again. And though I am fully aware I am now safe at home, I still have trouble sleeping soundly. The nightmares of my time in captivity jolt me awake almost every night,” Gopikrishna told BenarNews in a phone interview from his home city of Hyderabad in southern India, where he returned on Sept. 24.

A former computer science and engineering professor at Sirte University in Libya, he and his Indian colleague C. Balaramkishan, an English professor at the campus, were kidnapped by suspected IS militants on July 29, 2015, while traveling to Tripoli airport to catch a flight home from their annual vacation.

The Libyan army rescued the pair in a military operation on Sept. 14, the details of which were not made public.

The two men were among four Indians abducted together by IS militants. The two other hostages, Laxmikant Ramakrishna and Vijay Kumar, fellow colleagues at the university in Sirte, were released after two days in captivity.

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Recalling the day of their abduction, Gopikrishna said he and Balaramkishan were chatting about their respective families and their holiday plans, when masked men with guns stopped their cab about 50 km (31 miles) from Sirte.

“The men spoke to our driver for a few minutes, after which the driver left the vehicle. And before we could even understand what was happening, our faces were covered with sacks. Both of us were pleading to be let off. But we were told to stay quiet,” he said.

Gopikrishna. BenarNews
T. Gopikrishna. BenarNews

14 months in a ‘pigeonhole’

The professors were shoved in the back of a car and driven a short distance away – Click To Tweet“not more than a 20-minute drive or may be a bit longer,” said Gopikrishna, adding they were then offloaded and pushed into a small, dingy room, where the sacks over the heads were removed.

“There was no light in the room, but for the bit coming through from a tiny opening high up on one of the walls. There was almost zero ventilation. There were two mattresses on the floor. I thought I’d suffocate before they could kill me,” he said.

Little did the professors know that the “pigeonhole” would become their home for the next 14 months.

“For days on end we wouldn’t see our abductors. Twice a day someone would slip in our food – most of time it was bread and vegetables. We were never physically tortured, but not knowing who had kidnapped us or why, or what was going to be our fate was enough of a mental torture,” Gopikrishna said.

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“We had nothing to do aside from eating and sleeping. But Balaramkishan and I would chat about our families and how we might never see them again. We would cry together and sometimes laugh at jokes we told each other to keep our sanity,” he said.

‘We thought this was it’

During their captivity, the two hostages often heard gunshots, Gopikrishna recalled.

“At times we hoped that the army was around to rescue us, and at other times that we’d be killed so that at least the endless wait would be over,” he added.

Then one day, after another round of gunshots, the professors heard banging on the door to their room.

“We thought this was it. They’re going to kill us. But when the door opened it was the army. They said they were there to rescue us. We didn’t know how to react. We could not believe it,” Gopikrishna said.

Back home with his family in Hyderabad, Gopikrishna said he regretted moving to Libya in 2007 for the extra money he was offered.

“I am just very lucky to be alive and back home. I can’t thank the Libyan army and the Indian government enough for giving me a second go at life,” he said.

His wife, Kalyani, told BenarNews that she wouldn’t let him leave again even if he wanted to.

“I have waited for so long [for his return]. [I am] very happy he is back, and can’t express my joy in words. I won’t let him go again,” she said.

All efforts to contact Balaramkishan, also from Hyderabad, failed. His wife, Sridevi, told BenarNews that he was not interested in talking to the press.

“Our entire family is overjoyed he is back safe. For 14 months we were living in tension, surviving solely on the hope that he will one day return home,” she said.

More captives

According to India’s Ministry of External Affairs, while the government had facilitated the return of about 700 Indians back home from Libya, about 800 Indians are employed in different parts of Libya, which is one of the strongholds of IS.

Ministry spokesman Y.S. Kataria did not rule out the possibility of more Indians being held captive by suspected IS members in Libya.

“We know 39 [Indian] people are in [IS] captivity in Iraq. The number of captives in Libya is still being assessed through our consulate there,” he told BenarNews.

“All diplomatic channels are being adopted for their safe release. The embassy officials are in constant touch with the respective authorities, and where there is no government, with whoever is in control of the area,” he said. (BenarNews)

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US Backtracks on Iraqi, Kurd Cease-fire Claim

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An Iraqi soldier removes a Kurdish flag from Altun Kupri
An Iraqi soldier removes a Kurdish flag from Altun Kupri on the outskirts of Irbil, Iraq. VOA

Iraq, October 27: The U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State announced Friday morning a cease-fire between Iraqi forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga in Northern Iraq but quickly backtracked on the claim, saying it is not an “official” cease-fire.

Army spokesman Ryan Dillon posted a clarification on Twitter to say “both parties (are) talking with one another,” but that a “cease-fire” had not been reached.

The Iraqi military and the Kurdish minority have been clashing for several weeks after the Iraqi troops moved to secure areas in northern Iraq that had been seized from IS jihadists by Kurdish forces. The Kurdish forces abandoned the land largely without resistance, though low-level clashes have been reported.

Iraqi PM rejects Kurdish offer

The areas Iraqi forces are moving into were mostly under Baghdad’s control in 2014, when Islamic State militants swept into the region. Kurdish Peshmerga and coalition forces recaptured the lands, and the Kurdistan Region has since held them.

The Iraqi leadership said it is retaking the areas to establish federal authority after a Kurdish referendum for independence in September threatened the nation’s unity. More than 92 percent of Kurds in Iraq voted “yes” in a vote Baghdad called illegal, and the international community leaders said was dangerous and ill-timed.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Thursday rejected an offer by Kurdish leaders to freeze the results of their independence referendum in favor of dialogue in order to avoid further conflict.

The Kurdistan Regional Government, in a statement, said the confrontations have hurt both sides and could lead to ongoing bloodshed and social unrest in Iraq.

“Certainly, continued fighting does not lead any side to victory, but it will drive the country towards disarray and chaos, affecting all aspects of life,” the KRG said.

‘Unified Iraq is the only way to go’

Abadi said in a statement his government will accept only the annulment of the referendum and respect for the constitution.

During a briefing Friday morning at the Pentagon, Joint Staff Director Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie Jr. told reporters the U.S. believes “a unified Iraq is the only way to go forward.”

He added, “We’re not helping anyone attack anyone else inside Iraq, either the Kurds or the Iraqis.”(VOA)

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Indians Missing in Mosul: V.K. Singh in Iraq to Co-ordinate Search Opertion

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V.K Singh will co-ordinate search operation for 39 Indian
V.K Singh will co-ordinate search operation for 39 Indians who went Missing in Mosul. IANS

New Delhi, October 27: After the government sought DNA samples from the next of kin of the 39 Indians Missing in Mosul, Iraq three years ago, Minister of State for External Affairs V.K. Singh is again visiting the country to seek an update.

External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Raveeh Kumar said on Friday that Singh’s visit “is to talk to people”.

“He has met a range of people in Iraq. And also to get an update on the 39 missing Indians in Iraq,” Kumar said in his weekly media briefing here.

He said that on Thursday Singh was in Mosul city where the Indians went missing.

Last week, the families of the 39 Indians were asked to provide their DNA samples but no reason was provided, the kin said.

It was in June 2014 that the 39 Indians, mostly from Punjab, went missing in Mosul town when it was overrun by the Islamic State. Their families continue to hope the men are alive but also fear the worst.

Singh had visited Iraq in July too in this connection.(IANS)

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Europe Braces for More Attacks From Islamic State

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Police stand next to terraced housing in Harlesden Road
Police stand next to terraced housing in Harlesden Road, north London, April 28, 2017. British counterterrorism police said they had thwarted an active plot in an armed raid, the second major security operation in the British capital in the space of a few hours. VOA

European counterterror officials say they are taking no solace in the liberation of Raqqa from Islamic State, with some warning that the terror group’s communication and planning units remain “very active.”

The fall of IS’s Syrian capital this month has been heralded as a crushing blow to the group’s aspirations, with U.S. President Donald Trump calling it a “critical breakthrough.”

But counterterrorism officials say there is broad consensus that IS still has a considerable reach, especially in the near term.

“We all share the same opinion. The military defeat, the so-called caliphate being scattered, does not mean that the terrorist organization ISIS is defeated,” Dick Schoof, the Dutch national counterterrorism coordinator, told reporters Wednesday, using an acronym for the group.

Ability to communicate

A key concern is that a loss of territory in Iraq and Syria has yet to have a considerable impact on the terror organization’s ability to communicate, both with its operatives in Europe and potential recruits.

IS has also been able to leverage relationships with organized crime syndicates, which officials describe as especially worrisome.

“We know that ISIS’s planning unit is still functioning. Also, its communications unit is still functioning,” said Schoof.

The European assessment mirrors that of counterterror officials in the United States, who have repeatedly warned that, at best, there would be a lag between the fall of the terror group’s self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria and any impact on its external operations.

“We do not think battlefield losses alone will be sufficient to degrade its terrorism capabilities,” Nick Rasmussen, head of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, warned in written testimony to U.S. lawmakers in September. He called IS’s reach on social media “unprecedented.”

Also, one of the most anticipated consequences of the collapse of the so-called caliphate has failed to materialize: a substantial flow of foreign fighters to their home countries.

Schoof, the Dutch counterterror coordinator, said that of the Netherlands’ approximately 300 foreign fighters, slightly more than 50 have returned, with only a handful trying to make their way back as IS’s fortunes have waned.

French police and anti-crime brigade members
French police and anti-crime brigade members secure a street during a counterterrorism swoop at different locations in Argenteuil, a suburb north of Paris. VOA

Complex terror threat

Friedrich Grommes, head of the international terrorism and organized crime directorate for Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, has also said that “there is no hard evidence” for a rising tide of returning foreign fighters.

Instead, officials say, Europe is facing a more complex and variable threat picture, even as they have worked to take down, through multiple raids and a series of arrests, most of the IS network thought to be behind the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels.

At the same time, officials warn al-Qaida operatives have become more active, stepping up their planning for potential attacks on the West.

In particular, there has been growing concern about IS and al-Qaida activity in northern Africa.

“We are very cautious,” Schoof said. “ISIS and al-Qaida are still not very strong but do have footprints.”

Like the U.S., which has sent troops to Niger to track IS operatives and officials, European militaries have also been active in the region.

So far, at least, Western officials have yet to track any significant flow of foreign fighters or top officials from the Middle East to Africa.

But Islamic State, at least, is turning to a familiar strategy.

“What ISIS is absolutely trying to do is leverage local insurgencies now to rebrand themselves,” Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joe Dunford, the top U.S. military officer, said Tuesday following a meeting of the global coalition to defeat IS. “They’re trying to maintain relevance.”(VOA)