Amid media reports that the 39 abducted Indian workers in Iraq have been killed by Islamic State militants, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj acknowledged the government “does not have concrete proof” of the men being alive or dead and is continuing to search for them based on “six indirect sources”.
Speaking in the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj termed as “hearsay” the quotes attributed to Harjeet Massih, one of the workers who escaped from the clutches of IS, saying the men have been killed.
“I have said repeatedly that I do not have concrete proof of them being alive, but I do not have concrete proof of their being dead too,” she said.
Responding to allegations by the Congress that the government had lied to the nation about the fate of the abducted Indians, Sushma Swaraj said that there are a “lot of discrepancies” in Massih’s alleged revelation of the men having been shot dead.
She said Massih’s story has been doing the rounds for some time, but she said the government contacted high level sources in Iraq and the Gulf to find out the truth. According to the minister, six sources have given oral as well as written assurances that the men are alive.
“One source is saying they are dead, six are saying they are alive… what should I do, stop searching for them?” she appealed to the house.
“I have said I do not have direct contact with them.. It is an easy way out to believe the single source (Massih), but what about the six sources who are saying they are alive?” she said.
Massih claimed that he and the other Indians were abducted, along with Bangladeshis, on June 15 and taken towards Erbil, in Iraq. The IS militants separated the Bangladeshis and Indians on the basis of religion and set the Bangladeshis free.
He claimed that the Indians were taken to an isolated spot and shot dead. Massih claimed he was also hit by bullets but they only scraped his skin and he pretended to be dead. He escaped when the militants had left.
Sushma Swaraj said she had shared the messages of the six sources with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and Food Processing Minister Harsimrat Kaur.
She said the Red Crescent had also quoted sources saying the men were alive.
She said if the government was convinced earlier that the men were dead, then it would have stopped looking for them.
“We decided to look for them instead,” and added that they have contacted all the countries in the Middle East, including in the Gulf, at the highest level, as well as organisations and people who can help locate them.
Sushma Swaraj said the government was not trying to mislead the country but doing its utmost to save the men.
“When I get any concrete proof of what Harjeet Massih has said, I shall tell the house; and I pray that what the six sources said is true, and that we are able to bring them back, but that will take time,” she said.
She said Massih is in “government protective care” and sought the backing of the Lok Sabha in the efforts to search for the men.
The Indians, mostly from Punjab, were employed as labourers for a Turkish construction company in Mosul when they were abducted in June by suspected Islamic State militants.
In July, 46 Indian nurses from Kerala, who were stranded in Tikrit in Iraq and later held by Sunni insurgents, were rescued.