India said Friday it was still searching for 39 construction workers abducted in Iraq in June, denying a report claiming they had been executed by the Islamic State group.
Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj urged the workers’ families not to lose hope, despite not knowing the whereabouts of the men who were rounded up by jihadists in Mosul city.
In a speech to parliament, Swaraj said “six sources” based in Iraq had assured her that the workers were still alive.
“At least six sources have told us they have not been killed. We have not got any proof of this but then there is no proof either that they are dead,” she told parliament amid uproar from opposition MPs over the report.
TV network ABP News late Thursday quoted two Bangladeshi workers who claimed the jihadists had executed all 39 Indians.
The Bangladeshis, who had also been kidnapped but were later released, claimed to have spoken with one of the Indians who escaped from the jihadists and who witnessed the killings.
The construction workers were among dozens of foreign nationals swept up in the initial onslaught by the organisation in June, when the jihadists overran large swathes of territory and captured Mosul.
“We have not been able to establish direct contact with the hostages. But I urge everyone not to accept reports of their deaths,” Swaraj told the upper house.
“The Bangladeshi nationals who are being quoted in reports are not eye-witnesses… We will continue with our search even if there is just one percent chance of them being alive.
“Our efforts to find them are on day and night.”
Some 46 Indian nurses also trapped in the conflict were freed in July, but there has been no breakthrough in the search for the construction workers, who are mostly from poor families in Punjab and Haryana states.
The jihadists have carried out a series of mass executions and other atrocities against locals and foreigners since the June offensive.
Iraqi security forces wilted under the initial onslaught, but are now backed by US-led air strikes, international advisers, Shiite militiamen and Sunni tribes, and have begun to claw back some areas.
But three key cities — Mosul, Tikrit and Fallujah — are still in militant hands, as are a slew of villages and other areas.