The bodies of 39 Indian workers kidnapped in Iraq four years ago by the Islamic State group have been found in a mass grave near Mosul, according to Indian authorities.
Forty workers, mostly from poor families in northern India, were working for a construction company in Iraq when they were taken hostage in 2014 by IS after it captured Mosul. While one of the workers managed to escape and return to India, the others remained missing.
Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj told the upper house of parliament on Tuesday the workers were murdered by IS militants. “I say with a heavy heart they have been killed. Deep penetration radar showed there were bodies under the surface.”
Indian authorities had been following up on the whereabouts of the missing men since Mosul was retaken by Iraqi forces last July.
After bodies were found in a mass grave, along with objects such as religious bangles worn by the Sikh community, in the village of Badush, northwest of Mosul, authorities had sent DNA samples from family members of those kidnapped for identification.
Swaraj said Iraqi authorities had informed them that the DNA of 38 Indians have been matched. One person’s identity matched partially but could not be conclusively established because his parents were not alive.
The confirmation of their death devastated relatives who had hoped they might be found alive. Last year the government had said that there was no evidence that the workers had been killed by IS and it believed they were still alive.
Following Tuesday’s announcement, the lone man who managed to escape from the militants, told reporters he had been proven right — Harjit Masih had been saying for three years that all those taken captive along with him had been killed. “I had not been lying,” he said, “the government misled the 39 families who lost their relatives.”
Masih had recounted how they had been kept hostage for several days, then taken outside one day, ordered to kneel down and shot by the militants. He said he fell unconscious after a bullet hit his thigh, but he managed to escape and return to India in 2015.
The government defended the delay in confirming the deaths, saying it was their duty to search for the missing men and they needed proof before they could make an announcement about their fate.
Opposition parties, however, attacked the government. “Giving false hope to people is actually cruel,” opposition Congress Party lawmaker Shashi Tharoor said.
The Chief Minister of Punjab State, Amarinder Singh, to which most of the victims belonged tweeted: "Shattered at the heart-wrenching news."
Authorities are sending a special plane to bring the bodies home. Minister Swaraj said there is hope this will bring closure to the family members of those who had been killed.