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SOURCE: REUTERS

India said it had uncovered a “major human trafficking network” which lured young men to Russia with the promise of jobs only to force them to fight in the war in Ukraine. About 35 men have been sent to Russia in the scheme so far, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) said late on Thursday, an increase from the 20 men that the Indian foreign ministry had earlier mentioned.

At least two men who went to Russia expecting to work as “helpers” in the army have died while fighting at the front, their families have said. The Indian Embassy in Russia confirmed one of those deaths.

The traffickers, operating across several Indian states, targeted people using social media platforms and through local agents, the CBI said in a statement.

The CBI’s criminal case says that some of the men were also offered admission to “dubious private universities” in Russia along with “free discounted visa extensions” to draw them in.

“The trafficked Indian nationals were trained in combat roles and deployed at front bases in Russia-Ukraine War Zone against their wishes,” the CBI said, adding that some of the victims were also “grievously injured” in the war zone.

The CBI said searches were being conducted at a number of locations, including in the capital New Delhi and financial capital Mumbai, and cash amounting to 50 million rupees($605,000) had already been seized along with some documents and electronic records.

Certain suspects have also been detained for questioning at various locations,” it said.

The foreign ministry has said that every case of Indians being duped into fighting in the war had been “strongly taken up” with Moscow.

In videos circulating on social media this month, seven men have sought the Indian government’s help to return home, saying they travelled to Russia on tourist visas but are now being forced to serve in its army.

“We have seen some videos and are trying to contact those people,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Randhir Jaiswal said on Friday.

The Russian foreign ministry has not responded to requests for comment on the issue.

Thousands of people have died on both sides since Russia invaded Ukraine in Feb. 2022 in what Moscow termed a “special military operation”.

New Delhi and Moscow have enjoyed a close relationship for decades and India has refused to condemn Russia over the war with Ukraine, urging the two sides to end the conflict through dialogue and diplomacy.

India has also stepped up its purchase of cheap Russian oil, much to the frustration of Western capitals.