Oman secures release of abducted Indian priest

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Oman secures release of abducted Indian priest
Muscat has secured the release of an Indian priest, who was abducted last year in a deadly attack by Islamist militants in Yemen, Oman’s official news agency said on Tuesday.

Father Tom Uzhunnalil from Kottayam in Kerala had been held captive since March 4 2016, when jihadists attacked a care home operated by missionaries in the southern port city of Aden, killing 16 people, including four nuns. He belonged to the Salesian Congregation (The Society of Don Bosco) in Bengaluru.

Uzhunnalil was pictured Tuesday wearing local traditional dress and with a flowing but tidy white beard grown while in captivity.

He appeared relatively healthy, standing tall before a portrait of Oman’s Sultan Qaboos.

The news release said Omani authorities “coordinated with Yemeni parties” to free Uzhunnalil, described as a “Vatican employee”, at the request of the Sultan. In video footage from Oman TV, Uzhunnalil is seen arriving in Muscat.

He disembarks from a Royal Air Force of Oman plane unaided, but struggles as he makes his way down the steps to the tarmac.

“I wish first and foremost to thank God almighty for this day,” the priest said before thanking Sultan Qaboos and those who prayed for his release.

Sushma tweet

Uzhunnalil, who is in his mid-50s, last appeared in a video circulated online in December 2016, in which he alleged that his captors had sent many messages to Governnebt of India to negotiate the terms of his release, but to no avail.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of India, however, expressed its “profound gratitude” to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, apart from Sultan of Oman, for the release of Uzhunnalil. It said that Pope Francis had taken personal interest in efforts to get him released.

“I am happy to inform that Father Tom Uzhunnalil has been rescued,” Sushma Swaraj wrote on Twitter.

Yemeni authorities have blamed the Islamic State group for last year’s attack. Al-Qaeda, which is also active in the area, distanced itself from the mass shooting, saying that it was not involved.

What made New Delhi’s efforts to rescue Uzhunnallil all the more uphill is the absence of India’s diplomatic mission in Yemen.The country has been ravaged by a conflict since early 2015 when Saudi Arabia started air-strikes to support forces and militias loyal to deposed President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in their fight against rebel Houthis. In view of the worsening security situation, India had first shifted its embassy in Sana’a to neighbouring Djibouti and later to MEA headquarters in New Delhi.

Oman has frequently helped facilitate the release of foreign nationals detained in Yemen.

The internationally recognised government in war-torn Yemen is grappling with both an Iran-backed rebellion and a growing jihadist presence.

Al-Qaeda and IS have stepped up attacks in Aden, targeting mainly loyalists and members of a Saudi-led coalition battling Huthi rebels and their allies.