In what the Ministry of External Affairs described as “dramatic developments”, Sunni militants on Friday released the 46 nurses they had taken from Tikrit to Mosul a day earlier, and had them escorted to the Kurdish border where they were met by Indian officials.
The nurses were taken to the airport at Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region in Iraq’s north, from where a special Air India aircraft sent by New Delhi was to fly them back. The plane was expected to land in Kochi on Saturday morning, possibly around 6.30 am.
“I can confirm to you that the Indian nurses moved out against their will are free. They are in touch with the Indian embassy officials at Erbil,” MEA spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said.
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He said the nurses were “safe” and “unharmed”, although they had gone through a “traumatic experience”.
Also on the flight back to Kochi and, subsequently, Delhi, will be 70 other Indian nationals who had reached Erbil from Kirkuk. Two government officials, MEA joint secretary (Personnel) S K Sinha and a Kerala government official, were on the flight that left Delhi on Friday evening to bring back the 116 Indians.
“Some of you started the day thinking that it was moving towards a hopeless end. But for many of us, we were filled with endless hope. And the hope triumphed,” Akbaruddin said.
He said that a team of Indian officials had been sent to Erbil earlier as part of a “carefully crafted” strategy. “This process did not happen just like that.”
The spokesperson said External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had been in touch with several of her counterparts in the Gulf. “We were using other doors as well… one of those doors opened, and we were able to extricate our Indian nationals.”
“Conventional tools of diplomacy” did not exist in a war-like situation, Akbaruddin said, adding, “It was an extremely difficult situation. We were in contact using very unconventional methods.”
“Quiet work” had happened, he said, adding that India “has friends not only in Iraq, but also outside”.
“It was a national endeavour. While the External affairs Minister led the diplomatic effort, we were always in contact with what was happening. We remained in touch through other tools. National assets are being used in the endeavour.”
Asked if Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been personally involved in the process, Akbaruddin said, “The Prime Minister is hands on all the time.”
Swaraj, the spokesperson said, had been chairing a high-level meeting almost every day, sometimes cancelling other engagements, while the MEA’s secretary (East) Anil Wadhwa chaired a high-level group meeting twice daily.
However, Akbaruddin said, 39 Indians still remained in captivity in Iraq, and the MEA was focused on their rescue. “This success makes us redouble our efforts to secure the release of those Indians who are still in captivity. We have won a small little battle, but a war is still on.
“We won’t be satisfied till we reach culmination of our efforts and bring all nationals back.”
At a separate press conference in New Delhi earlier, Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said the nurses had reached the Kurdish border from Mosul.
“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,” Chandy told reporters after a meeting with Swaraj.
President Pranab Mukherjee expressed relief at the resolution of the crisis. “Happy, relieved 46 nurses from Tikrit have reached secure area. Look forward to their early and safe return to India,” a tweet posted on the official Twitter handle of Rashtrapati Bhavan said.
The ordeal of the nurses, who were working at a hospital in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, began after the Sunni militant Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took the city in a swift offiensive on June 9. On Thursday, the nurses were forced to move out of the hospital and taken to militant-held Mosul, 250 km from Tikrit.
One of the nurses, Remya Jose, informed her parents in Kannur around noon on Friday that their vehicles had left Mosul for Erbil, about 80 km away.
Earlier, another nurse, Teenu V John, told The Indian Express that ISIS representatives had informed them in the morning that they would be taken to the airport in Erbil.
The nurses said that after being taken from Tikrit to a hospital complex in Mosul, they were locked in a large room. Their captors were initially harsh, but ultimately gave them food and allowed them to call their homes.
Thirty-one of the 46 nurses have not received a salary since joining Tikrit Teaching Hospital in February. Others were denied two months’ salary by the Iraqi government, citing the country’s grave financial situation. The nurses had no idea on Friday whether they would get any money at all for their work.