A team of seven Indians employed with Al Shola Al Mudea energy company in Libya got into an SUV to catch a flight from the Tripoli airport on September 13. The 800-km distance between Brega and Tripoli was risky because of the threat posed by militants. Despite precautions, the team was abducted at Asswerif and ended up as captive for almost a month and was released on October 11. A source with knowledge of the operation said the rescue would have been impossible but for Tabassum Mansoor, principal of the Indian School of Benghazi, who carried out the negotiations with the militants through various sections of Libyan authorities and tribal elders to secure the release of the men.
Also read: India welcomes release of abducted citizens in Libya
On that fateful day, Omaid, one of the seven, had called his brother-in-law Feroze Moltani in Gujarat and informed that they were all set to leave. After that there were no more calls. As Feroze and other family members of the seven Indians spent anxious days, Al Shola Al Mudea received calls from the abductors who demanded ransom to free the men. A rescue operation was tough in such a case as the conflict in Libya made normal diplomatic operations impossible. India does not have a resident Ambassador or representative in capital Tripoli and Libya is at present divided between two different governments in the east and the west.
“I can’t explain the terrible time we have been through. We had initially given up hope of seeing Omaid again. I pray to God that no one should experience so much pain as we had to endure in those first few days. But it was at that time that we found strength and support from Tabassumji. The Indian embassy in Tunis provided excellent diplomatic support but Tabassum madam handled the local negotiations to free our people,” said Feroze breaking down repeatedly over an online interview with The Hindu .
Ms. Mansoor has been in the Libyan city for more than three decades. Originally from Gorakhpur, Ms. Mansoor first came to spotlight during the 2011 evacuation of Indians from Benghazi when the city witnessed intense fighting between the forces of Muammar Qadhafi and the rebels who wanted to bring down the government. While evacuation of Indians in the west of the country was relatively easy as the facilities were still functioning in capital Tripoli, the same was not possible for Benghazi which is located in the eastern part of Libya. She mobilised the local authorities and tribal elders and around 3,000 Indians were evacuated on ships and aircraft via Malta. The energetic school teacher has seen Libya change before her and the country, despite the civil war, has treated her with great respect. Recognition also came from the Libyan government in Tripoli which made her a member of the National Education Council of Libya.
This time too Ms. Mansoor swung into action once she was entrusted with the task of coordinating the important local operatives to ensure smooth release of the seven Indians. While the Indian embassy in neighbouring Tunisia under the leadership of Ambassador Puneet Roy Kundal maintained diplomatic pressure on Tripoli by writing to the officials almost daily, Ms. Mansoor reached out to the local elders and worked her social network in and around Benghazi, 1200 km east from Tripoli. She had set up the Indian school three decades ago and over the years the school has emerged as the only English-medium educational centre in Benghazi. Apart from the main school, the Indian School network has two other branches in Benghazi that offer school education to the strife torn city. The local recognition helped the 59-year old principal as she campaigned for the safe release of the seven Indians.
Ms. Mansoor declined to speak about her role in securing the safe release of the Indians when The Hindu reached out to her. But a source who has been part of the entire process said the negotiations with the militants were highly risky as they are known to be unpredictable. As the negotiations with the kidnappers proceeded successfully, Ms. Mansoor went personally to Brega where the captors handed over the Indians. “It was a risky move as anything could go wrong with armed militants. But the Libyan authorities gave a convoy of security guards to her which boosted our confidence,” said the source from Libya.
The Libyan support to Ms. Mansoor drew appreciation from the Ministry of External Affairs which expressed “sincere thanks to the Libyan authorities and the tribal elders from the region” for the support they extended to secure the release of the men. Mr. Kundal in a social media message has announced the freed Indians will be repatriated soon.