Thirty-nine Indians abducted by the ISIS terror outfit in Mosul in Iraq three years ago are dead and their bodies have been recovered, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said in Parliament on Tuesday.
While it was not immediately known when the Indians were killed, their bodies were recovered from Badosh - a village in northwest of Mosul, and their identities established through DNA testing, she said making a suo motu statement in the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday.
The mortal remains, which were exhumed from a mass grave in Badosh, will be brought back to India on a special plane and handed over to their relatives, she said.
"I had said that I will not declare anyone dead without substantive proof. Today I have come to fulfil that commitment," she said.
"I had said that closure will be done with full proof. And when we will, with a heavy heart, give the mortal remains to their kin, it will be a kind of closure."
A group of 40 Indian workers, mostly from Punjab, and some Bangladeshi were taken hostage by ISIS when it overran Iraq's second largest city Mosul in 2014.
Of the 40 Indians, one Harjit Masih from Gurdaspur had managed to escape and had claimed to have witnessed the massacre of the others. But the government rejected it.
"His was a cock-and-bull story," Swaraj said adding he had managed to flee the ISIS by faking his identity as a Muslim from Bangladesh.
Watch video: 39 Indians shot dead by ISIS in Iraq 3 years ago, claims Harjit Masih
The Indians were first kept at a textile factory in Mosul and after Masih escaped, they were moved to a prison in Badosh.
Relentless search for them led to a mass grave in Badosh, where deep penetration radar was used to establish the presence of bodies below a mound. The bodies, which were exhumed with help from Iraqi authorities, had distinctive features like long hair, 'kada', non-Iraqi shoes and IDs.
The bodies were sent to Baghdad for DNA testing.
The government was told on Tuesday that the DNA of 38 Indians matched with the remains of bodies found. One body was a 70 per cent match, she said.
Giving details, she said when ISIS overan Mosul, most Iraqis left the city but Indian and Bangladeshi workers stayed back.
Inquiries from a caterer revealed that the ISIS caught them when they were coming back after meals. They were first taken to a textile factory where Bangladeshi workers were separated and sent to the city of Erbil.
The caterer stated that he had received a call from one 'Ali' who claimed that he is from Bangladesh and should be moved to Erbil as commanded by the ISIS, she said, adding Masih had called her up from Erbil but could not say how he had reached there.
"He had escaped by faking as Ali in the van arranged by caterer" to transport Bangladeshi to Erbil, she said. When next day, a count of Indians found one of them missing, they all were moved to Badosh.
Watch video: 39 Indians who were abducted in Iraq are dead: EAM Sushma Swaraj in Rajya Sabha
The minister said after the ISIS was overthrown, her deputy and Minister of State for External Affairs V K Singh visited Iraq in search of the missing Indians.
He along with the Indian Ambassador and an Iraqi official searched the Badosh prison, the last known location of 39 Indians.
Commending Singh for his efforts, she said the three had to sleep on floor of a small house during the search operations.
Local inquiries led to the mass grave, from where bodies were exhumed and taken to Baghdad for DNA testing. Baghdad-based Martyrs Foundation was requested to help establish the identity of Indians on priority.
"The first match was of Sandeep. Yesterday 38 matches were confirmed and 39th person had been 70 per cent matched because DNA of his relatives was used in absence of his parents," she said.
"It has been the most difficult and complex task to get the proof," she said. "Such a barbaric terror organization. There were mass graves. It was a pile of bodies. To track down the bodies of our people and take them to Baghdad to test was a huge task."
The minister thanked Iraqi authorities for excellent cooperation in first using deep penetration radar to locate the bodies, then exhuming them and later transferring them to Baghdad for DNA testing.
She said Singh will travel to Iraq to bring back the mortal remains on a special plane. The first stop on way back would be Amritsar where 31 bodies of those from Punjab and four from Himachal Pradesh would be handed over to the relatives. It will then travel to Patna and then to Kolkata.
Watch video: It was expected, it should have been announced earlier, it was known since earlier: Punjab CM
Chairman M Venkaiah Naidu termed it as very sad news, after which the MPs stood in silence to mourn the dead.
Opposition Congress condoled the deaths but its leader and Leader of the Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad sought to remind the government that it had "assured us last year that the Indians were alive".
Days after Mosul's liberation from ISIS was announced, VK Singh was sent to Iraq.
Last year, Swaraj had told the families of the workers that an Iraqi official, quoting intelligence sources, had told VK Singh that the Indians were made to work at a hospital construction site and then shifted to a farm before they were put in a jail in Badosh.
Swaraj wanted to make a similar statement in the Lok Sabha but could not do so because of ruckus created by opposition members.
However, Gurpinder Kaur, the sister of one of the 39 Indians killed in Iraq, has said she finds it difficult to believe her brother is no more because Sushma Swaraj had assured her for years that he was alive.
Gurpinder, who heard the news on television, said she will believe her brother is actually dead only when the ministry contacts her. Swaraj said in a statement in the Rajya Sabha today that 39 Indians, abducted by ISIS in Iraq's Mosul town three years ago, are dead and their bodies have been recovered.
"I heard this on television. Until the MEA (Ministry of External Affairs) does not contact me, I will not believe this," Gurpinder, whose brother Manjinder Singh was in the group, said.
The minister, she added, had been saying all along that he was alive and they are tracing the location. "Now, I don't know what to believe," she told the media.
(With inputs from PTI)
Watch video: Families of deceased say will believe news of death when MEA calls us