External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj on Tuesday confirmed that 39 Indians, who were taken hostage in Iraq by ISIS militants in June 2015, are dead. The terrorist organisation had abducted a total of 40 Indians from Mosul but one of them escaped by posing as a Muslim from Bangladesh, Swaraj said in Parliament, adding the remaining 39 were taken to Badoosh and killed.
Search operations, said Swaraj, led to a mound in Badoosh where locals said some bodies were buried by the ISIS. Deep penetration radars were used to establish that the mound indeed was a mass grave, she said, adding the Indian authorities requested their Iraqi counterpart to exhume the bodies.
DNA testing established the identity of 38 Indians while there has been 70 per cent match with the 39th person, she said.
For the past three years, the government had maintained that the 39 Indian in ISIS captivity in Iraq were “alive and well”. Kurdish authorities had revealed to The Indian Express in 2014 that they had evidence of mass graves being dug in the area, which they believed could contain the remains of the Indian workers. The Indian workers, Kurdish intelligence believed, were initially held by local Mosul militia with links to ousted dictator Saddam Husain’s Ba’ath party, but then handed over to Islamic State for execution
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Earlier, Gurdaspur (Punjab) resident Harjit Masih — arrested in March this year on charges of forgery connected to an alleged immigration racket — had provided the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) with a detailed account of how the workers had been executed by Islamic State on June 16, 2014.
Masih, 25, said he had been the sole survivor of the massacre, surviving an injury to the leg to make his way to Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital, Erbil. However, evidence later surfaced that at least some of the workers were alive till June 19, 2014.
In May 2015, Swaraj after meeting the families of the abducted Indians had reassured the families about the well-being of the nationals on the basis of information received from various sources. Masih, however, insisted that they were all 39 workers were shot a few days after they were abducted, and chances of their survival were “bleak”. According to Masih, four or five days after they were taken hostage on June 15, 2014, the ISIS took them to a hilltop, ordered them to line up, and shot them from behind. Masih, who was reportedly hit in the right leg, said he dropped to the ground and feigned death. He lay there till the militants left and then ran for cover.
Masih said after escaping, he stayed with a group of Bangladeshi youths in Iraq for a few days. “After that, I contacted the construction company in Irbil where I was employed. They handed me over to the Indian Embassy. They brought me to India where I was kept in Greater Noida and Gurgaon till about two weeks ago… I was told there was a threat to my life from the parents of the 39 hostages. I somehow did not understand this,’’ said Masih.
However, Swaraj had at that time refuted Masih’s claims and said: “I did not believe Harjit Masih’s claims that 39 Indians were killed… I’ve met family members of Indian nationals who are stranded in Iraq, had discussions with them… Harjit Masih is claiming that all of them are dead, but I do not believe him… will continue with the search.”
On July 26 last year, Swaraj told Parliament why her ministry has refused to declare the victims dead. “Declaring anyone dead without proof is a sin and I won’t commit a sin,” she had said in the Lok Sabha. She again dismissed Masih’s claim, arguing that if ISIL had indeed executed their Indian captives, there would have been evidence of their crime.
“Following Masih’s claims, in 2014, I had asked the Indian embassy in Iraq to investigate it and they have found nothing to indicate that 39 Indians were killed in Mosul. There were no bodies found or a pool of blood or any signs of a mass slaughter,” she said.
In the same month, Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari had said there was no “substantial evidence” to prove whether the Indians were alive or dead and confirmed that their last known location, the prison at Badoosh, has been destroyed by the Islamic State.
In October last year, the MEA had started gathering DNA samples of the families of the 39 missing Indians and had sent them 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.