NEW DELHI/KOCHI: A group of 46 Indian nurses held captive by Sunni militants ISIS in strife-torn Iraq have been set free and were being brought back home in a special Air India plane which left this evening for Erbil, a non-conflict zone.
The nurses are expected to reach Kochi on Saturday morning, officials said on a day of dramatic developments in efforts to end their ordeal.
"I can confirm that the Indian nurses moved out against their will are free. They are in touch with the Indian Embassy officials at Erbil," the Spokesperson of the External Affairs Ministry told reporters in New Delhi. Erbil in north Iraq is the capital of Kurdistan region of the Arab Gulf country.
The ordeal of the nurses, who were working at a hospital in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, began when a swift ISIS(Islamic State for Iraq and Syria) offensive was launched on June 9.
The nurses were moved out on Thursday against their will and were held in the militant-held city of Mosul, 250 km from Tikrit. The Erbil International airport is 70 km from Mosul.
"The nurses are safe, unharmed," the spokesperson said, adding the special Air India flight has taken off from Delhi. "We won't be satisfied till we reach culmination of our efforts and bring all nationals back." he added.
A joint-secretary level IFS officer and an IAS woman officer from Kerala are among the Indian officials travelling on the chartered flight.
At a separate press conference in Delhi, Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said the nurses have reached the border near the international airport at Erbil for their evacuation to India.
"The nurses will reach Kochi tomorrow (Saturday) morning," Chandy said.
"The government of India, the embassy in Baghdad and the state government, all have worked together and finally we are achieving the objective to bring back the nurses to India," he said.
In Kochi, airport sources said Air India's special flight Boeing 777 carrying the nurses and other passengers from Erbil is expected to reach the city around 6.40 am on Saturday.
The nurses were moved in a vehicle by rebels from their hospital in Tikrit on Thursday and were lodged in an old building near a hospital in Mosul, according to family members of a nurse from Kottayam.
"My daughter called me around 10.45 last night and said the group had been accommodated in a hall in Mosul. It appears to be part of a hospital...She told me not to get panicky if she did not call home frequently as she was not sure if there would be a facility to get the phone charged," said Sobha, whose daughter is one of the nurses.
It took "enormous efforts" both within and outside Iraq by India to extricate 46 of its nurses from the conflict zone, where the "conventional tools" of diplomacy did not work on the ground, the MEA Spokesperson said.
India used all "national assets" to secure the release of the nurses from ISIS, who had forced them to move out of their hospital in Tikrit yesterday against their "free will", he said.
However, the Spokesperson did not divulge the details of how India managed to secure the release and only said that there were other captives in the conflict zone and process of freeing them was "underway" and any comments at this stage may be counterproductive.
He said he will not get into the "how, when, where, what" on the release of the nurses at this stage.
A joint secretary-level officer will accompany the nurses on the plane, which will also carry 70 other Indian nationals from Kirkuk in the northern part of Iraq, the Spokesperson said.
India to 'redouble' evacuation process
He said after securing the release of the nurses, the government will "redouble" efforts to evacuate other captives in the conflict zone, which includes a batch of 39 in Mosul, but did not elaborate.
"We are engaged at the ground and at diplomatic levels... At this stage, our primary goal is to ensure that they are brought back from captivity. This is a war situation. "We do not have the capabilities that ordinarily you would have in a situation where there is no conflict. These are extremely tenuous links that we are building and anything we do to undermine them is not going to help us in the long run," he said.
The Spokesperson said, "Resources used to free these nurses will be diverted to free other Indians... Will leave no stone unturned to bring back Indians from Iraq."
He added, "We will not be satisfied until the culmination of this effort."