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August 17, 2017

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46 nurses from India freed in Iraq return home

NEW DELHI -- A group of 46 Indian nurses who were freed by Sunni insurgents in Iraq returned Saturday to the southern city of Kochi on a special Air India flight.

They were met by scores of relatives who cheered and welcomed them with bouquets and garlands. Kochi is in the state of Kerala from where most of the nurses hail.

"We are happy and relieved ... We thought we would never make it back," one nurse, Neenu Jose, told reporters, thanking the Indian government for securing their release.

"We were frightened and tense but they (militants) did not harm us and behaved with us respectfully," she said.

The special flight, carrying 100 more Indians who were trapped in the war-torn country, was to fly onwards to Hyderabad in southern India and New Delhi.

The nurses were working at a hospital in Tikrit which was over-run by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). On Thursday, the rebels forced them to board buses and took them to their stronghold of Mosul.

On Friday evening, New Delhi confirmed they had been freed and had taken the flight to India from Erbil, capital of the Kurdish autonomous region.

"Hope has triumphed. The nurses who were moved against their will are now free," Foreign Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said.

The Indian government did not disclose how the nurses' release was secured but official sources told domestic media that no ransom had been paid.

Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, who was at the airport to receive the nurses, said risks and "difficult decisions" were taken to free them.

The Times of India newspaper reported that India's diplomatic contacts as well as prominent Indian businessmen in the region played a role in freeing the nurses.

Another nurse, Marina Jose, told broadcaster NDTV that they had got a "second chance at life."

"On Thursday they (militants) told us to move since they were going to bomb the hospital. They blasted it within an hour after we were out. If we hadn't obeyed them, I don't know if how many of 46 members would be here," she said.

Meanwhile Indian officials said efforts were continuing to secure the release of 39 workers abducted by militants in Mosul some two weeks back.

India is also in the midst of evacuating some 900 of its citizens from Iraq. A total of 10,000 Indians live and work in the Middle Eastern country.

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