A group of 46 nurses caught up in fighting in Iraq arrived home in India on Saturday after briefly being held captive by suspected militants, an outcome celebrated by the newly elected government in New Delhi as an early diplomatic success.
The nurses, mainly from Kerala, were met by family members clutching bouquets of flowers and overjoyed that they were home barely two days after being taken against their will from a hospital in the Iraqi city of Tikrit.
“I thought I will never come back. I thought, (in the) last two days I am finished. These are my last days,” one nurse called Marina told Reuters TV at Kochi airport in Kerala.
Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, former Iraqi president, was the site of fierce fighting this week as Iraqi troops battled to regain control of the city from the al-Qaida splinter group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The nurses had been holed up in a hospital in the city since the Islamic State insurgents and other Sunni Muslim militant groups seized towns and cities across Syria and Iraq in a lightning advance last month.
Many were initially unwilling to leave because of debts back at home, and then were trapped as the fighting grew more fierce. On Thursday, they were ordered to board buses and driven to the militant controlled city of Mosul, where they were held in a building overnight.
Speaking at the airport, the nurses said they had been well treated by their as yet unidentified captors.
“They were good people because they did not misbehave with us. They provided for food, accommodation and whatever we wanted they provided for,” one nurse, who did not give her name, told a local television network. “They were saying you are Indian nurses and we are not targeting you people.”
The situation, along with the kidnapping of 39 Indian builders still in captivity in Mosul, has been an early test for the new government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The government has not given details of the terms under which the nurses were released. But the foreign ministry said it involved multiple diplomatic channels as well as unspecified “very unconventional methods” in its efforts to free its nationals.
“There was an enormous amount of effort that was put in both within Iraq and outside Iraq,” foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said at a briefing on Friday.
Akbaruddin declined to give details of what role Modi’s national security adviser Ajit Doval played in the release of the nurses or in the efforts undertaken to free the builders. Doval, a highly decorated former police officer and intelligence chief, has in the past secured hostage releases for India.