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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Families distraught after Indian government admits ISIL killed relatives

ISIL never demanded a ransom for the construction workers abducted in Mosul

A fighter of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) holds an ISIL flag and a weapon on a street in the city of Mosul, Iraq, June 23, 2014. Stringer / File Photo / Reuters
A fighter of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) holds an ISIL flag and a weapon on a street in the city of Mosul, Iraq, June 23, 2014. Stringer / File Photo / Reuters

India's government faced a barrage of criticism on Tuesday after it officially announced for the first time that 39 citizens abducted by ISIL in northern Iraq almost four years ago were all dead.

The Indians, who had been working in construction near Mosul, were captured when the insurgents overran the area in June 2014. Around 10,000 Indians had fled Iraq as the violence built that summer.

ISIL also kidnapped and held 46 Indian nurses, but they were released after 23 days. In the case of the workers, however, there was no such swift resolution.

Until Tuesday the government in New Delhi maintained that the men were still alive, and that it was striving to bring them home.

Last July, Sushma Swaraj, India's foreign minister, told parliament she could not "commit the sin" of declaring the workers dead without proof. "There are no bodies, no bloodstains, no list, no [ISIL] videos," she said.

On Tuesday, however, she acknowledged to MPs that all 39 workers had been murdered.

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Where are the 39 Indians ISIL captured in Mosul?

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In a mass grave northwest of Mosul, 38 bodies yielded DNA samples that matched those of the missing Indians. A 39th corpse yielded a 70 per cent match to the remaining abductee.

Ms Swaraj said the government will send a plane to Iraq to bring the victims' remains home.

"How so ever painful, the families will get the dead bodies after over three years," she said. "This will hopefully bring some closure to the grieving families."

Ms Swaraj's statement came as a shock to relatives of the missing men, who had no prior knowledge of the results of the DNA tests.

In Chandigarh, Gurpinder Kaur, whose brother Manjinder Singh was among the men abducted, learned of the news on television. "Until the [foreign ministry] contacts me, I will not believe this," Ms Kaur told reporters. "No information was given to us."

She said she was told all along that her brother was alive and that the government was tracking down his whereabouts. "Now I don't know what to believe," she added.

Other relatives expressed similar bafflement. "I don’t know what to say," Purushottam Tiwari, the uncle of 35-year-old Vidya Bhushan Tiwari, told India’s national news agency.

Mr Tiwari had left his village of Sahasraon, in Bihar, to work for roughly 40,000 rupees a month ($600).

"Since 2014 I had been pleading with the government to bring him back somehow, and today they say that he is no more," his uncle said.

The government's prior silence also ran counter to statements made by Harjit Masih, who was the 40th man among the abducted workers.

Mr Masih returned to India a month after the ordeal, and he told reporters that militants had lined up the men in the desert and shot them.

Now 24, he escaped only because a bullet grazed his thigh and he played dead until the militants left the area.

Yet Ms Swaraj said on Tuesday that Mr Masih's story was unreliable, and that he had escaped Mosul with a group of Bangladeshi workers before ISIL entered the area. Indian officials encountered him in Erbil, she said. "We asked how he reached Erbil, but he kept saying: 'I don’t know, just get me out.'"

The government also faced criticism from opposition politicians.

Amarinder Singh, the chief minister of Punjab state, from where 31 of the 39 men came from, said after Ms Swaraj’s statement: "We had expected this. It should have been announced earlier. It was known much earlier."

The Congress party, on its official Twitter feed, called Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government "insensitive and inhuman to have repeatedly raised the hopes of these families, only to dash them later."

In a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Ms Swaraj said that protocol required her to first inform parliament before reaching out to the relatives of the dead workers.

She also denied that the government had given the victims' families false hope.

"We had been saying that we neither have the evidence of them being alive nor the evidence of them being dead. We maintained this in 2014 and 2017. We did not keep anyone in dark," she said. The government’s attempt to rescue the workers "wasn't falsehood, [it] was a tireless effort," she added.