Peshmerga units monitoring the Islamic State’s preparations ahead of a looming government offensive to recapture the Iraqi city of Mosul have found no evidence that Indian or other South Asian workers were being deployed to dig trenches and gun positions, highly-placed sources in the Kurdish Regional Government have told The Indian Express.
The grim Kurdish assessment comes on the back of growing disquiet about the fate of 39 Indian construction workers who were kidnapped by the Islamic State in 2014, despite assurances from the Indian government to their families that it has credible information that they are still alive.
“From all information we have, our assessment is, regrettably, that the Indian workers were shot dead near Badoush (in Mosul) within days of being taken hostage by the Islamic State, and then buried in a mass grave near Sahaji,” a senior Kurdish Regional Government official said in an e-mail.
However, the official added that this assessment was made on the basis of intelligence reports, which could not be corroborated since the territories continued to be held by the Islamic State.
External Affairs Ministry officials contested the Kurdish Regional Government’s claims, saying External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has received advice from three West Asian governments over the last 12 months saying their intelligence services had confirmation that at least some of the hostages were still alive.
Sources said Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas had given Swaraj emphatic assurances, when the two leaders met in Ramallah in January, that his intelligence services had spotted some of the men.
In addition, sources said, Swaraj had received similar assurances from two other West Asian governments.
However, officials conceded that none of the three governments had been able to provide any photographs or other “proofs-of-life” of the missing workers.
Badoush lies some 10 km west of the University Lake Towers site in Mosul’s Jamia district, within the University of Mosul area, where the 39 workers were taken hostage in July 2013. The small village of Sahaji, in turn, is some 10 km south of Badoush, linked to the highway by a dirt track.
Large-scale fortifications are being prepared by the Islamic State along the highway from Mosul to the ancient fortress town of Tal Afar, to which large parts of its infrastructure and command have been relocated in anticipation of the Peshmerga offensive.
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 believes, 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.
Earlier, Kala Afghana 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 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. Fatehgarh Churian resident Charanjit Singh last heard from his brother, Nishan Singh, that day, after Islamic State jihadists told him they would release the Indians “if someone responsible from the Indian military or government comes to collect them”.
In November 2014, Swaraj disputed Masih’s account, telling Parliament “at least six sources have told us that they [the kidnapped Indians] are alive. Now should we believe Masih’s version and discontinue the search or continue our efforts to trace them because there are others who say they are alive”?
Those sources included Iraqi businessmen and contractors operating behind Islamic State lines, who were equipped with photographs of the missing workers by the Iraqi Red Crescent, said officials.
However, though the names the Iraqi Red Crescent provided to the Indian mission in Baghdad included some of the missing workers, they also included several of South Indian origin — opening doubts on the authenticity of the information.
The Iraqi Red Crescent’s contacts were also unable to provide details of their families, or identify particulars.
Hired to work, along with large numbers of Bangladeshi labourers, on a construction project behind the College of Agriculture and Forestry in the University of Mosul, the men worked for Baghdad-based construction firm Tariq Noor al-Huda. The bulk were hired through the firm’s offices in the UAE, which operated through labour agents from Punjab.
Even though fighting began escalating in March, 2014, few considered leaving the region, believing that Iraq’s army would be able to contain the conflict. However, the poorly-commanded 2nd Division, divided along sectarian lines, collapsed after its top officers fled to Erbil after multiple suicide-bomb attacks.
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