On a day of "dramatic developments", all 46 Indian women nurses were suddenly set free by Sunni militants Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in strife-torn Iraq and were being brought back home along with 70 others in a special Air India plane which left this evening for Erbil, a non-conflict zone.
"The Indian nurses who moved out against their will on Thursday are free. They are in touch with the Indian embassy officials at Erbil," Syed Akbaruddin, 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 nurses are expected to reach Kochi on Saturday.
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, he said.
The ordeal of the nurses, who were working at a hospital in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, began when a swift ISIS 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 about 80 km from Mosul.
"The nurses are safe, unharmed," the spokesperson said, adding the special Air India flight has taken off from Delhi.
Asked if National Security Advisor Ajit Doval played any role in the negotiations to get the nurses released, he said at the diplomatic level, negotiations involved External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj herself but, at the ground level, the details cannot be shared.
"Diplomacy works through the front doors. We are using other doors and how those doors were used and knocked on and how they were opened up is a story for another day. The story for today is that one of those doors opened and we were able to extricate our nationals," the spokesperson said.
He further noted that the Indian officials were "always in touch" with what was going on with the nurses and said, "Things don't happen just like that. There is a lot of effort, patience and a lot of quiet work that has gone into this."
A joint-secretary level Indian Foreign Service officer and an Indian Administrative Service 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 on Saturday," 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.
Image: ISIS fighters seen after taking over Mosul