This image appears to show ISIS militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers dressed in plain clothes after taking over a base in Tikrit, Iraq. (AP/PTI Photo)
Forty-six Indian nurses taken captive by Sunni insurgents in war-ravaged Iraq were flying home after they were freed Friday in a dramatic move that brought relief to families and the government.
The nurses, all of them from Kerala, crossed into semiautonomous Kurdish territory at 7pm Friday and were received by local authorities and Indian officials. A special Air India plane will fly them and 70 other Indian workers from the Kurdish capital Erbil and reach Kochi at around 6.40am.
“Ultimately, it is hope that has triumphed,” external affairs ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin told reporters. “I can confirm to you that those Indian nurses who were yesterday moved against their will are now free.”
HT Edit: Release of nurses in Iraq marks a new phase in Indian diplomacy
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) militants had forced the nurses out of the Tikrit Teaching Hospital on Thursday, threatening to blow up the building they had been holed up in.
The nurses were moved to Mosul, one the first cities to be overrun by the the al-Qaeda splinter group, and kept in a building.
In a move that took the nurses by surprise, the militants Friday morning told them to get ready to leave for Erbil after breakfast as they were being freed.
Erbil governor Nawaz Hadi said the nurses arrived at a checkpoint and were being cared for by the Kurdish militia fighters, known as peshmerga. “All the nurses are safe with the peshmerga,” Hadi told The Associated Press.
Read: President expresses relief over Indian nurses reaching secure area
The semiautonomous region of Kurdistan in the north has escaped the mayhem caused by Isis militants who now control large parts of northern and western Iraq.
Sayona Thomas, a nurse from Palakkad in Kerala, rang up her home early Saturday to say they were being freed. “We were in constant touch with the parents of the nurses as well. So we knew what was happening throughout,” Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy said.
The release took enormous efforts” both within and outside Iraq as “conventional tools” of diplomacy did not work on the ground in the conflict zone, the MEA spokesperson said.
Shi'ite Muslims take part in a candlelight protest against the ongoing conflict in Iraq where Indian nurses from Kerala have been taken against their will from a hospital in the militant-controlled city of Tikrit. (Reuters photo)
He refused to go into details but sources said New Delhi was in touch with officials of various countries including the US and Turkey.
The insurgents had Thursday let go of a group of Turkish truck drivers.
Read: Nurses coming home, but why it will be harder to free Indian workers trapped in Iraq
External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj was in constant touch with her counterparts in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE to leverage their influence over the Sunii insurgents to seek the release of Indians being held captive, sources said. The Indian side was in touch with various humanitarian organizations and Kurdish authorities for a safe passage for the nurses.
Read: Nurses head home, but what of 39 workers still in Iraq?
The militants didn’t harm the nurses and offered them water and biscuits, said officials and family members.
Relieved relatives thanked Swaraj, Chandy and MEA for their help. “We don’t know how to express our gratitude,” said Sobha Sasikumar, mother of one of the freed nurses.
As nurses head home, there is little information about the 39 Indian workers who were snatched by Isisi three weeks ago. Akbaruddin said the government would “leave no stone unturned” to bring back the remaining Indian hostages home.
Full coverage: Iraq on the brink