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India looks for new partners in Jordan, Palestine to secure release of 39 Indian hostages

As President Pranab Mukherjee embarks on a historic visit to West Asia from today, among strengthening bilateral ties and signing memorandums for education, culture and economy he is expected to seek help from Jordan and Palestine in securing release of the 39 Indian workers taken hostage allegedly by ISIS in Iraq. Mukherjee will be on a six day visit to Jordan, Palestine and Israel.

Pranab Mukherjee

He is likely to discuss the issue in political interactions with both Jordanian and Palestinian authorities.

While media reports and testimony from the lone Indian worker Harjit Masih, to have escaped from the group has said that all the 39 workers have been massacred, the Indian government believes they are still alive. The workers, belonging from Punjab were working to build part of University of Mosul in Jamia district in Mosul, Iraq. They were abducted on June 11, 2014 by ISIS militants, as the group captured territory in Iraq and Syria to declare a Caliphate- an Islamic State, few days after. According to interviews by Masih, four days after the workers were kidnapped; ISIS militants made them kneel and shot them in head. He was the only one to escape, survive the massacre and return back to India.

However, the government has denied Masih’s claim and as recently as last month external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj who met the families, assured them of the well-being of the workers. She has also said that all the regional partners of the government have claimed that the labourers are alive. These assurances have failed to secure the release of the workers- if they are alive- and bring them back home.

The new initiative comes close on the heels of Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas on the sidelines of United Nation General Assembly in New York in September, with the later assuring him that the Indian hostages are alive.

“Palestine has strong intelligence network in Iraq and Syria, which was used successfully to secure release of two Sweden citizens. We are confident of helping in the case of Indian workers and rescuing them as well,” said an official from the Palestinian embassy.

Both Palestine and Jordan earlier this year jointly helped in releasing two Swedish citizens, kidnapped by Al Qaeda’s Jabhat al Nusrah –a rival of Islamic State from 2013. Palestinian intelligence sources had entered 500 meters into Syria and negotiated with Nusrah fighters to release the hostages. They were successful in the operation.

Since last year India has extended co-operation and intelligence sharing with Gulf and West Asian countries in its bid to secure the release, but this failed in any positive response, beyond written and verbal commitments of the safety of the workers. India is now hoping for a similar miracle with assistance from Jordan and Palestinian intelligence. “India needs Arabic partners from Levant to conduct this operation. So far its partners were Gulf based,” an official said. More than actual evidence, India will need Arabic interlocutors to negotiate or talk to IS or its allied armed groups, first to verify if the workers are indeed alive and secondly to release them and bring them from Iraq/Syria to India.

India has recently appointed a new ambassador to Syria, three years after the post was left vacant as well as to Iraq.