By Sruthi Gottipati
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Nearly 50 Indian nurses from the southern state of Kerala have been taken against their will from a hospital in the militant-controlled city of Tikrit in Iraq, India's Foreign Ministry said on Thursday.
At a briefing with reporters, Foreign Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin declined to say who had ordered the nurses to leave the hospital or where they were taken.
"They are not going of their own free will," he said, when asked whether the nurses had been abducted by a militia. "This is a situation where lives are at stake."
A senior aide to Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, who spoke to the nurses on Thursday, told Reuters that militants had forced the nurses to vacate the hospital and board two buses. Most of the nurses are from the south Indian state of Kerala.
Tikrit, the birthplace of former President Saddam Hussein, has been the site of fierce fighting this week as Iraqi troops battle to regain control of the city from the al Qaeda splinter group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Islamic State insurgents and other Sunni Muslim militant groups seized towns and cities across Syria and Iraq in a lightning advance last month.
Indian nurses can earn higher wages in the Middle East than at home. Some of the nurses in Iraq resisted returning to India because they had taken out large loans to get overseas work.
Some critics say the Indian government should have sought to evacuate the group of 46 nurses in Tikrit earlier, despite the difficult security situation.
"The Iraqi army is not in control of Tikrit," Akbaruddin said, adding that the nurses were still in phone contact with Indian officials. "We have been in touch with humanitarian organizations and they had, in this instance, indicated their inability to reach the nurses given the difficulties in road transport."
Two weeks ago, 40 Indian construction workers were kidnapped in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, and all but one of them are still in captivity. The workers have been press ganged into building defensive fortifications for the insurgents, Indian newspaper The Hindu reported, citing a senior Kurdish security official.
About 10,000 Indians work in Iraq, mostly in areas unaffected by the fighting, but scores of them have returned to India since ISIL began its offensive.
(Additional reporting by D. Jose in Thiruvananthapuram, Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Jeremy Laurence and Tom Heneghan)