sushma-swaraj_32New Delhi: All 39 Indian construction workers kidnapped by the Islamic State in 2014 from Iraq’s city of Mosul have been killed, the government said on Tuesday, confirming the worst fears after keeping alive hopes over their survival for the last nearly four years.

The confirmation came in the form of a suo motu statement External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj made in the Rajya Sabha after a limited truce was struck between the government and the opposition in the chamber of the House Chairman M. Venkaiah Naidu.

Sushma Swaraj, who had earlier made statements, including a July 22, 2017 answer in the Lok Sabha that “as per the latest information from multiple third party sources, they are all safe”, on Tuesday rejected the lone survivor Harjit Masih’s claim that the 39 Indians were shot dead as a “cock and bull story which wasn’t true”.

After questions were raised over the government’s confirmation, the minister held a press conference to say that the government cannot declare any person dead without concrete proof and it was her duty to inform Parliament first about their death rather than tell their families first.

“I refused to close the files (of the 39 Indians) till we had concrete proof in hand (about their death),” she said.

Earlier, she informed the Rajya Sabha that Indian efforts to search for the missing led to a mound near Badush village in Mosul where a local resident said some bodies had been buried by the Islamic State under a mound.

She said deep penetration radars helped find 39 bodies buried under the mound. The bodies were exhumed and DNA samples from relatives of the missing workers were sent to Iraq.

The minister said DNA samples matched with 38 bodies and the 39th was yet to be fully confirmed because the DNA sample sent was from someone else in his family as his parents are dead.

“The first sign was that the bodies were exactly 39, plus strands of long hair and a ‘kada’ were also found. So we started conducting DNA tests.”

The victims — 27 from Punjab, four from Himachal Pradesh and six from Bihar and two from West Bengal — were construction workers employed by an Iraqi company in Mosul. The victims were taken hostage when the Islamic State took control of the second largest city in Iraq. They were trying to leave Mosul when they were abducted.

She said Minister of State for External Affairs V.K. Singh will go to Iraq to bring back the mortal remains of the Indians. “The plane carrying the bodies will first reach Amritsar, then Patna and then go to Kolkata.”

She dismissed the claims of Masih, the only survivor who escaped from Mosul. “He was not willing to tell me how he escaped,” she said.

He had escaped along with Bangladeshis with the help of a caterer with a fake name Ali, she said.

Briefing media persons later, Sushma Swaraj said her government did not believe in declaring a missing person as believed to be killed.

“Not a single day was spared in our efforts to trace them after they went missing in June 2014,” Sushma Swaraj said.

Asked why then there was such a delay in confirming the death of these Indians, she said the DNA samples were initially matched with the bodies found in mass graves in Iraq.

Asked what kept hopes alive of the fate of these men, the minister said at least two Heads of State had said they might not have been killed.

The lone Indian wondered why the government didn’t believe him all these years after having “spoken the truth”.

“I had been saying for the past three years that all 39 Indians had been killed by ISIS militants,” Masih, 28, a resident of a village in Gurdaspur district, told reporters.

He said they all were killed in front of his eyes.

Narrating the incident, Masih said the Indians were kidnapped by the militants and after some days they fired indiscriminately at them.

“I was fortunate to manage to escape from the clutches of the militants despite getting a bullet injury,” he said.

Reacting to the confirmation of deaths, Swaran Singh, whose kin was among the 39 dead, said Sushma Swaraj should have informed the aggrieved families about the deaths before “exploding the bomb on us” in Parliament.

“This is nothing less than brutality to the families who were waiting for the safe return of their boys. The minister should have called us before exploding the bomb on us,” Singh said.

He said the government earlier trusted unreliable sources about their safety and “it is very much possible that the claim made by them now is also wrong”.

Kanwaljit Kaur, mother of Dharmendra Kumar of Batala village in Gurdaspur district, said: “I have not lost hope. I have shortlisted a few girls for him and anxiously waiting to see him as a bridegroom.”

Congress leader and Rajya Sabha member Partap Singh Bajwa, who had raised the issue last year in parliament, accused the government of misleading the families.

“This is complete failure of MEA and the government of India,” he tweeted. “I raised this issue many a times in Rajya Sabha that why is the Government playing with emotions of families by giving them false hopes. Can there be anything more shameful than this?”