Ministry of External Affairs is gathering DNA samples of the families of the 39 missing Indians who were believed to have been captured by Islamic State (IS) militants from Mosul more than three years ago. These samples, ministry sources said, would be sent to Iraq and Syria to be matched with people captured from fallen IS bastions such as Raqqa, as well as with bodies recovered during combing operations.
This comes three months after External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said it was a “sin” to presume the 39 men were dead, unless there was proof. “We are very clear: we want conclusive proof about them. We are in touch with the local authorities who have access to the area. Once we have the DNA samples from the families, we can match with those in custody as well as bodies, suspected to be of Indians,” a source said. The Indian missions in Damascus, Baghdad and Erbil have been asked to be in constant communication with the local authorities for the identification process.The MEA’s push to locate the missing men comes at a time when US-backed militias in Syria have declared victory over the IS in Raqqa.
“In June-July this year, we were told that Raqqa is the last bastion and the 39 missing Indians could be there… so we kept a close watch on the battle there. Now that it’s almost over, we will be restarting our search in Raqqa. Collection of DNA samples is the first step towards that objective,” the source said.
The MEA has been in touch with local missions in Syria and Iraq, besides seeking help from American authorities for coordination on the ground, ministry sources said. The MEA’s States department has been asked to coordinate with the Punjab government to collect the DNA samples of the families — 25 of the 39 missing Indians are from Punjab.
On Saturday, family members of seven of the missing men who hailed from Amritsar district were called to the Amritsar Medical College for sample collection.
However, the samples could not be collected as the forensic department of the medical college did not have enough FTA cards, which are used to collect and store the samples.
Department head Dr Ashok Chanana said they have asked for more cards and the samples may now be collected on Sunday. “DNA sampling cases are rare, say, one in two months. We did not have enough FTA cards (for all the family members),” he said, adding he was informed about the sample collection exercise only on Friday evening.
Gurpinder Kaur, sister of Manjinder Singh, one of missing men from Amritsar, said she had no idea why samples were being collected. “On Friday evening, the tehsildar told us to reach Amritsar Medical College at 10 am on Saturday,” she said, adding that she has been told to come again on Sunday.
Documents accessed by The Indian Express reveal that the MEA wrote separate letters – on different dates – to the Punjab chief secretary, the state Resident Commissioner in Delhi and the deputy commissioners in districts.
The first letter, to Punjab Resident Commissioner Rahul Bhandari, went out on September 7, asking for the DNA samples to be forwarded to the MEA “at the earliest” so that they can be sent to Iraqi authorities.
“The Government of India has been making all efforts to obtain proof of (the 39 men) being either alive or dead. Under this exercise, we have received information from the Government of Iraq that they have found mass graves in and around Mosul and Badush areas. In order to establish the identity of the mortal remains found in mass graves, blood samples of the close blood relatives of these missing persons are needed. This will enable Iraqi authorities to match the DNA samples with those found in mass graves.”
The letter sought two sets of blood samples from “three close blood relatives” of each of the missing men — one to be sent to Baghdad and other to be analysed by the state government for preparation of the DNA report.
On October 13, the MEA sent an email to Punjab Chief Secretary Karan Avtar Singh saying, “As per the request of Iraqi authorities, DNA samples of near relatives… have to be collected to assist in the search of missing persons. There is a very urgent need to get these samples as a high-powered delegation from the Ministry of External Affairs will be visiting Iraq later this month and will be needing the samples.”
The email asked Chief Secretary to issue “appropriate orders to concerned nodal authorities in the State government to obtain the DNA samples and forward the same to the Ministry at the earliest”.
Avtar Singh did not respond to calls and a text message sent to him on the subject.
In the latest email, sent on October 18 to deputy commissioners, the MEA wrote, “As a high-powered delegation from this ministry is scheduled to visit Iraq for the purpose on 23.10.2017, the blood samples are urgently required.”
Forty Indians were believed to have been abducted by IS militants in June 2014. Harjit Masih, a resident of Kala Afghana in Gurdaspur district who claimed to be part of the group of 40, came back to India and dramatically narrated his ‘escape’ from alleged IS custody and maintained that IS militants gunned down the others. The MEA has, however, denied his version.
In July this year, when Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Eshaiker al-Jafari said that his government had “no substantial evidence” on the missing persons, the Opposition had accused the government of misleading families of the missing men.
Swaraj had then told Parliament, “This government won’t end the search for our missing citizens until we have proof they are not alive.”