All 46 Indian women nurses seized by Sunni insurgents in Iraq were freed Friday after intense diplomatic efforts, and were set to return to Kerala Saturday morning. In what appeared to be a sudden change of mind, the militants told the nurses Friday morning after breakfast that they should be ready to move to Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, on their way home.
IANS scooped the story, with Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy telling the news agency first that the nurses were on their road to freedom. He is to receive the nurses Saturday morning at Cochin airport.
The dramatic development took place some 24 hours after gun-toting militants forced the nurses to leave their hospital in Tikrit, where they had been holed up for days, for the rebel stronghold Mosul.
Their shifting caused panic, with some reports suggesting that the nurses would be forced by the Sunni insurgents to work in hospitals controlled by them in Mosul, their stronghold. But the situation changed suddenly Friday morning for the nurses, all from Kerala. Officials said all the nurses were safe.
On Friday evening, a special Air India flight took off from New Delhi for Erbil, carrying an officer each of the Kerala and the central governments. Also boarding the plane along with the nurses would be 70 other Indians stranded in strife-hit Iraq.
“Ultimately it is hope that has triumphed,” spokesman Syed Akbaruddin of the external affairs ministry said. “I will confirm to you that those Indian nurses who were yesterday moved against their will are now free.” He underlined that “enormous” efforts led to a happy ending.
“This … didn’t happen just like that,” he said. “It happened because there was an enormous amount of effort that was put in both within Iraq and outside.”
Akbaruddin did not reveal what back-channel efforts New Delhi put in but said that “conventional rules of diplomacy no longer exist” in insurgent-held areas in Iraq.
“India has friends not only in Iraq but outside Iraq. Be rest assured that the support we are getting from within and outside is very substantial.”
He said a significant number of Indians were still in the conflict zone. “We are working on those… We will not leave any stone unturned in trying to get back our nationals from an extremely difficult position.”
The Air India plane is expected to take off from Erbil Friday night. After landing first in Kochi, it will fly to New Delhi.
Chandy told IANS that the nurses were taken in a bus from Mosul, which they reached Thursday evening from Tikrit, to Erbil, 60 km away.
One nurse in the bus confirmed to IANS through SMS that they were on their way to Erbil.
The development triggered a wave of joy in Kerala, where nursing is a major profession and whose nurses serve in hospitals all across India and in many countries.
A group of Keralites and Indian diplomats were at the border of Kurdistan to receive the nurses.
From Kochi, the Kerala diaspora agency will transport the nurses to their homes across the state. A train ticket has been booked for a nurse who lives in Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu.
The chief minister, who has been camping in New Delhi since the crisis erupted, said the latest development took place due to the efforts of the Kerala and the central governments.
He gave credit to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, who Thursday cancelled a planned trip to Bhopal after realizing that the insurgents had moved the nurses from Tikrit to Mosul.
“A high-level crisis management group under the leadership of Sushma Swaraj has been formed. It will be doing everything to see that the nurses are brought back safely,” Chandy said.