NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India has had no contact with 39 men missing in Iraq since June, but believes them to be alive, the foreign minister said on Friday, distancing herself from a report that suggested they had been killed by Islamic State militants.
India has grown concerned about the fate of the construction workers believed to have been kidnapped from the militant-controlled city of Mosul, along with a group of 46 nurses.
While the nurses were freed within a few weeks, the workers’ whereabouts remain unknown, presenting the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with its first hostage crisis.
Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj told parliament that the government was continuing its efforts to find the men after six sources, including the Red Crescent, had independently told it the men were alive.
“We don’t have direct contact with them, but we have contacts with sources in the country,” she said. “They are telling us the Indians are safe and have not been killed.”
On Thursday, television channel ABP Live said an account by a man who escaped from the kidnappers described the militants as having taken the hostages to a hilly region and shooting them dead months earlier.
The Indians were among a large group, including Bangladeshis, kidnapped by masked militants holding guns and Korans, according to the account by Harjeet Masih.
While the Bangladeshis were told they would be let off after ascertaining they were Muslims, the Indians had their mobile telephones and passports confiscated.
Four days later they were killed, Masih said, adding that he suffered two bullet injuries but escaped by playing dead.
Swaraj said there were several discrepancies in the account by Masih, who is now in the government’s protective custody.
“We don’t believe his story. We have decided that we will carry on with our efforts to secure the release of our nationals.”
Opposition leaders and families of the hostages, most of whom are from the northern state of Punjab, say the government has kept them in the dark about the men’s fate.
About 10,000 Indian nationals live and work across Iraq, the Indian government has estimated.
Editing by Clarence Fernandez