Smoke rises over Mosul during clashes between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants. Photo: Reuters/Khalid al Mousily

Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj informed the upper house of Parliament on Tuesday that 39 Indian nationals who were captured by ISIS in Mosul, Iraq, in 2014 had been confirmed dead.

A total of 40 men from different parts of India had been working on construction in Mosul. They were captured by Islamist extremists in the Iraqi city when a conflict broke out between the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and the Sunni jihadis.

After their capture, Indian media reported that families of some workers had been informed that their kin were still safe and that ISIS did not intend to harm them. The Hindu, an Indian newspaper, reported that the trapped men were being forced to work at different sites held by the jihadist group.

One of the captured persons, Harjit Masih, managed to escape from ISIS’s grip, and on returning to his home in India in 2015 he claimed that the rest of the Indians had been shot by the jihadis a few days after the abduction.

Masih’s claim that the chances of their survival were low was strongly opposed by Swaraj at the time. “Harjit Masih has been saying from the first day that only he could escape and rest of them died. But I do not believe him and will continue to search for them,” she told news channel ANI.

On Tuesday, Swaraj said it had been very difficult for the Indian government to carry out the search. She thanked the Iraqi government for helping exhume the dead bodies of the workers from a mass grave, and for taking them to Baghdad and examining them.

She said General V K Singh, Indian minister of state for external affairs, would go to Iraq to retrieve the men’s remains and fly them back along with certificates of DNA verification of the deceased persons.

Of the 39 victims, 31 hailed from Punjab, four from Himachal Pradesh, and rest from Bihar and West Bengal. The aircraft carrying the mortal remains of the victims will first go to Amritsar in Punjab state, then to Patna, capital of Bihar, and after that Kolkata.

Bodies in mass grave

Swaraj reiterated the stance she took last year that she did not want to announce that the trapped workers were dead before proper confirmation. She added that when General V K Singh had gone to look for the abducted workers in Iraq, he found out that they were not killed within a few days of the abduction as Masih had claimed.

Swaraj said Singh had spoken to the owner of the factory where the Indians along with some Bangladeshis and others had worked. When ISIS started to seize Mosul, the factory owner apparently asked the workers to leave but the Indians and Bangladeshis remained there.

They were abducted by jihadis on their way to a caterer who served them food. The Bangladeshis and Indians were kept in separate places and afterward the caterer was designated by ISIS to transfer the Bangladeshis to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Swaraj said Masih had managed to escape with the Bangladeshis by pretending to be a Muslim. She added that his story that ISIS had put all of the Indians in a line and shot them, after which Masih was able to escape, was a made-up story.

The factory owner had said that after the Bangladeshis were sent off, the Indians were taken to the village of Badush near Mosul. General Singh had followed the trail and found a suspicious mound there. He contacted Iraqi authorities to acquire a deep-penetration radar, through which the mound was revealed to be a mass grave. After digging it up, the bodies of the Indian workers were found.

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