December 1, 2018 / 5:47 AM / 8 days ago

Employees of IL&FS held by Ethiopian staff say fears for safety

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Employees of Indian company Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services (IL&FS) taken hostage by local staff in Ethiopia say they fear for their safety, with some confined to a company campus north of the capital Addis Ababa.

FILE PHOTO: People walk past a building of IL&FS (Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services Ltd.) outside its headquarters in Mumbai, India, September 25, 2018. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas/File Photo

India has asked the Ethiopian authorities to investigate and help the seven IL&FS employees who were held by local staff due to non-payment of salaries by the debt-laden firm, an Indian government official said on Saturday.

A group of four employees had not been allowed to leave an IL&FS campus in Bure town, 400 km (250 miles) north of Addis Ababa, since Nov. 24, said store manager Nagaraju Bishnu, one of the employees held.

Two other IL&FS employees were detained by local staff in the town of Woliso and one in Nekemte town, both of which are west of the capital, Bishnu told Reuters by telephone.

“The main gate is locked, they are observing our movements,” said 26-year-old Bishnu, speaking of the situation at Bure.

“They’ve told us that until they get their salaries, we can’t move from here ... We are facing sleepless nights.”

IL&FS late on Saturday said two of its seven employees had been released and were now in Addis Ababa. But it was not clear whether those employees were the ones held at Woliso or Nekemte. Bishnu said he and his colleagues were still trapped at Bure.

The Indian government took control of IL&FS in October after it defaulted on some of its debt, triggering wider concerns about risk to the country’s financial system.

The infrastructure financing and development company had over the years developed roads, townships and water-treatment projects in India and abroad.

An official at India’s foreign ministry said the government was discussing the matter “on priority” with Ethiopian authorities and the management of IL&FS.

“We are doing our best to ensure a settlement of this matter,” said the official, who declined to be identified.

An IL&FS spokesman in India, Sharad Goel, said the company was making efforts, in coordination with the Indian government and the Indian embassy in Addis Ababa, to ensure the safe and early return of its employees.

“We continue to work towards resolving the situation and have been in touch with our employees in Ethiopia,” Goel said in a statement.

Ethiopian government officials in Addis Ababa could not be reached for comment.

LOW ON WATER SUPPLIES

With the situation widely reported in the media, Bishnu said he feared the local staff would take away mobile phones or cut online access to restrict those held from talking to colleagues or communicating via e-mails and social media.

For now, Bishnu said, he has been speaking with the IL&FS employees held hostage in different areas, and the movement of employees within the camp has not been restricted.

The employees are cooking their own food, eating potatoes and rice, although drinking water supplies are running low.

“After tomorrow, there will be no drinking water,” he said.

Some of the employees being held have been posting messages on Twitter, asking Indian politicians including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the foreign minister to intervene.

Neeraj Raghuwanshi, who said he was one of the seven, late on Friday wrote an “SOS” message on Twitter saying: “Situations are beyond our control, please #help before mishappening.”

Reporting by Aditya Kalra; Additional reporting by Sanjeev Miglani in NEW DELHI and Aaron Maasho in ADDIS ABABA; Editing by Robert Birsel, Tom Hogue and Andrew Bolton

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