New Delhi: It was an emotional homecoming for 46 Indian nurses who were stranded in the violence-hit Iraqi city of Tikrit for over three weeks.
The nurses arrived by a special Air India flight in their home state of Kerala on Saturday, a day after they were freed by their captors who had forcibly moved them to the nearby city of Mosul on two buses on Thursday.
The para-medics, who had been holed up in a hospital in Tikrit with limited food supplies since June 12 when ISIS militants took over the city, were received by Kerala Chief Minister Oomen Chandy at Kochi airport.
"I am very relieved. It was a joint effort by the state government and the Centre," Chandy told the media at Kochi airport.
As the nurses came out of the airport, local TV channels captured tearful images of rapturous friends and family members greeting them with flowers.
The nurses, mostly from Kerala, told the media that they had no complaints about their treatment by the rebels. "We are very happy (to be freed)," Marina Jose, one of the nurses released by militants told an Indian news channel.
Apart from the 46 nurses, the special flight also brought back over 100 Indian workers from Kirkuk in northern Iraq.
On Friday, the Indian External Affairs Ministry had announced that the nurses were freed by their captors after intense diplomatic efforts by Delhi. "Ultimately it is hope that has triumphed," Foreign Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said.
He had also underlined that "enormous" efforts led to a happy ending. "This didn't happen just like that. It happened because there was an enormous amount of effort that was put in both within Iraq and outside," the spokesperson said.
High placed sources say it's a diplomatic victory for Narendra Modi government, particularly Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj who worked really hard to secure the release of the nurses, tapping Gulf countries as well as Syria and Turkey.
Efforts are now on to secure the release of the 39 Indian construction workers, kidnapped by suspected ISIS militants in Mosul last month. An estimated 10,000 Indians are reported to be working in Iraq. Scores of them have returned to India since fighting began.
S.Moitra - Our correspondent