Kochi/New Delhi: The special Air India plane carrying 46 Indian nurses who were freed by militants in Iraq is on its way to Kochi. The Air India Boeing 777, that is also bringing back over 100 other Indians who were trapped in the war-torn country, had stopped at Mumbai briefly for refuelling.
Special flight had landed in Mumbai on Saturday at 8:43 am. The flight made a 'technical halt' in Mumbai for refuelling and catering supplies.
The flight is expected to land at Kochi international airport around noon. Chief Minister Oommen Chandy will receive them at the airport and special arrangements have been made to help them.
I am very relieved, not only me but everyone in Kerala: Kerala CM Oommen Chandy on nurses returning from Iraq pic.twitter.com/Y991U43Uel— ANI (@ANI_news) July 5, 2014
In what is being seen as the first foreign policy success of the Narendra Modi government, on what was officially called a day of “dramatic developments”, the group of 46 Indian nurses held captive by the ISIS militants in strife-torn Iraq were set free and are brought back home in a special Air India B-777 aircraft that took off from New Delhi on Friday evening for Erbil in northern Iraq’s Kurdistan area, that is a no-conflict zone.
After disembarkment of some passengers, the plane would reach Kochi around 11.55 am, Cochin International Airport Director A K C Nair told PTI this morning.
The flight left Erbil for India at around 4.30 am IST, he said. From Kochi, the flight will proceed to Hyderabad and then Delhi, he said.
Family members gathered at Kochi airport waiting for their loved ones.
Very happy that they are coming back, finally our worries have ended: Relative of Indian coming back from Iraq pic.twitter.com/PqEdwOLcBZ— ANI (@ANI_news) July 5, 2014
Besides the nurses, the plane is also carrying 137 other Indian nationals, including 70 from Kirkuk in the northern part of Iraq.
A joint-secretary level IFS officer and an IAS woman officer from Kerala are among the Indian officials travelling on the chartered flight.
Air India spokesperson in Kochi said there are 183 passengers, including 23 crew members and three government officials, onboard the flight.
Kochi: Families of Indians who were stranded in Iraq await their arrival pic.twitter.com/n9Ab9qo8H9— ANI (@ANI_news) July 5, 2014
According to information provided by Air India from Erbil, 46 nurses will get down at Kochi and around 100 other passengers are bound for Hyderabad, the spokesperson said.
The nurses reached Erbil by road on Friday night, from where were flown by the special Air India flight.
“I can confirm the Indian nurses moved out against their will (from Tikrit to Mosul) are free. They are in touch with Indian embassy officials at Erbil,” MEA spokesman Syed Akbaruddin told reporters in New Delhi.
Read: ‘Unpaid, nurses risked their life’
“It (release of the nurses) didn’t happen just like that. There were enormous efforts undertaken both in and out of Iraq... India has friends both in and out of Iraq. We knocked on many doors, one door opened,” he said. It is not clear if any ransom was paid to secure the release of the nurses.
Asked for details on exactly how the nurses’ release was secured and what the captors’ demands were, the MEA spokesman declined to go into details, saying there were still some Indians in captivity and the process of freeing them was “under way”, therefore, anything that was said might have an impact. “We will not say how we are operating, with whom and when,” the spokesman said when asked again how the release was secured.
“Conventional diplomatic tools don’t exist in conflict areas,” he added, making it clear he wouldn’t get into the “how, when, where, what” on the nurses’ release at this stage.
In reply to a question, he also said external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj had been conducting high-level meetings throughout Friday and “leading the diplomatic effort” ever since the crisis started.
Read: Release of nurses a diplomatic feat
Prime Minister Narendra Modi too was “hands on all the time”, he said, adding that “a lot of effort, patience and a lot of quiet work has gone into this.”
The government’s good use of its extensive contacts in West Asia, including the Gulf countries, seems to have played a major role.
“We have succeeded in extricating 46 nationals from the zone of conflict... The success will make us redouble our efforts for those still in captivity,” the MEA spokesman said, referring to another group of 39 Indians in captivity. “We won a small little battle. There is a war on,” he said.
“We are aware of the captors... This is a war situation... We are building tenuous links. We will not be satisfied till we reach the culmination of this effort. Resources used to free these nurses will be diverted to free other Indians... We will leave no stone unturned to bring back Indians from Iraq,” he added.
When asked why the nurses were not flown out in the initial stages of the conflict in Tikrit, the spokesman said that “earlier when there were opportunities to leave, a majority of the nurses made a judgment call” (not to quit Iraq).
“It was difficult to extricate them when the land route is not available. The land route is dominated by the captors,” he said.
On the success in securing the release, he said: “Some thought we had reached a hopeless end but we had endless hope.” He added that 1,500 Indians — largely from southern Iraq — had “signed up to leave”.
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, now renamed simply Islamic State) offensive was launched on June 9.
Watch: Freed India nurses talk to media, say ‘We are all very happy’