NEW DELHI: Indian External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, has denied claims that 39 Indians taken hostage by the Islamic State in Iraq have been killed. The claim was made by Harjit Masih, who was amongst the group taken hostage in June last year. Masih returned to Chandigarh, India on Thursday and told ANI that he was the only one to survive and escape.

Masih was brought forward by AAP MP Bhagwant Mann who alleged that Masih’s story indicates that the government has been giving “false” hopes to the families of the missing Indians. “External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj says the boys are safe and the government is trying to get them back... Can she at least make these boys talk to their families over the phone so that it assures them?”

According to Masih, “They were at least fifty kidnappers. Their faces were covered and were armed. They asked us to give them our passports. We were taken to a place at an hour’s drive from Mosul and kept in a basement. The next day we were shifted to an abandoned thread factory where we contacted our families and told them not to worry as the kidnappers told us we would be released soon. After 3-4 days the Bangladeshis were segregated from us and we were taken to a semi-hilly area. I saw several dead bodies there. We were asked to hand over our mobile phones and money and sit down. Then the kidnappers started firing at us. A bullet grazed my leg but I was alive. I got up after they left and stopped a taxi and asked to be taken to the airport. Another taxi took me to a check post captured by the IS. I told the IS that I was a Bangladeshi and had lost my passport. They allowed me to go further. I was sent back to my company... I borrowed someone’s phone and called the Indian embassy number.”

Masih says that he was then picked up by the Indian embassy and brought back. “I stayed in Gurgaon for some months after which I was sent to Bengaluru for electrical repair training. I was told I would be given a job. I stayed in Greater Noida for a few months. My family knew I was safe but it was to be kept under wraps because I was told the IS threat was still there,” he said.

Sushma Swaraj, however, has disputed Masih’s version of events. "We are not sparing any efforts to find them. We are hopeful that we will be able to find them and bring them back home. I have eight different sources who say that they are alive," Swaraj told the media after families of the hostages met her in New Delhi on Thursday.

This is not the first time reports have emerged regarding the unoptimistic fate of the Indian hostages. In November last year, two Bangladeshi workers -- Shafi and Hasan -- who were working for a construction company spoke to ABP News from Kurdistan’s capital Erbil. Shafi and Hasan relayed news of one kidnapped Indian -- Harjeet Masih -- who had managed to escape the Islamic State and had told them of the fate of the 39 Indians who remained in the militants’ hold; all 39 had been executed by the IS, Masih reportedly told Shafi and Hasan.

The report, soon picked up by Indian media, prompted the Congress party to move that the government has known about the fate of the Indian nationals. Countering this claim, Swaraj at the time said, “We have information from six different sources that the 39 Indians kidnapped in Iraq in June have not been killed… It is my responsibility to continue with the search on the basis of statements of these 6 sources.”

The kidnapped Indian nationals -- who have been missing for almost a year -- were working with a Turkish construction company in Mosul when the militants took over.

Although India stepped up efforts to bring back Indians based in Iraq following the advance of the IS, the MEA has been fairly silent on the status of the 40 hostages. It is not even known whether the Indian government has any idea about their location, or whether contact with the militants has been established for their release.

Soon after the kidnapping, ANI news agency quoted a number of family members expressing their frustration and demanding answers on the progress being made to secure the release of the construction workers. "We are going to meet the External Affairs Minister. We have not got any information (about our relatives) as yet. We will plead with her to bring back my brother who is stranded in Iraq. This is the second time we are going to meet the External Affairs Minister,” a relative was quoted as saying, adding, "If we do not get a satisfactory response, then, we will sit on protest at Jantar Mantar."

Another relative was quoted saying, “I am going there [to meet Swaraj] again. I will plead with them to bring my son back. I think there must be an opportunity in India so that youths do not have to go to work abroad? We want our son back, or else, we will sit on protest at Jantar Mantar."

India, however, celebrated the safe return of 46 Indian nurses, who had been stranded in Tikrit as the IS militants took control of the city, as a diplomatic success. Even then, the nurses were quoted by the media portraying a grim situation, with the Hindustan Times quoting one of the captive nurses, Sona Joseph saying, “Our government wasted a lot of time. Now, they can send coffins to take us back.” “We were politely resisting their moves to shift us from the hospital but now their tone is different. We have no option but to obey them,” the nurse added in reference to a complication in the hostage situation that involved shifting from Tikrit to Mosul. On arriving in India, one of the nurses told Reuters, "I thought I will never come back. I thought, (in the) last two days I am finished. These are my last days.”

The Indian government did not share details concerning the release and return of the nurses, with the Foreign Ministry saying that diplomatic channels and “unconventional methods” were behind the release. "There was an enormous amount of effort that was put in both within Iraq and outside Iraq," former MEA spokesperson Akbaruddin had said.

The same level of secrecy surrounds the Indian government’s dealing with the hostage crisis involving the construction workers in Mosul. If the safe return of the nurses was a diplomatic success, the lack of information regarding the construction workers is bordering on turning into a major diplomatic failure.