NEW DELHI — Dozens of Indian nurses who had been stranded in Iraqi territory held by Islamic extremists were greeted with hugs and flowers Saturday as they returned home to southern India aboard a special flight.
The 46 women had been holed up for more than a week in Tikrit, where fighters of the Islamic State group have taken over. The nurses had been moved to a new area under the extremist group's control, and finally crossed over late Friday into Irbil, in Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdish region.
The Indian government organized an Air India plane to fly the nurses home from Irbil. After a brief refueling stop in Mumbai, the plane landed in Kochi, in the nurses' home state of Kerala.
Outside Kochi's airport, hundreds of friends and relatives of the women greeted them with hugs and flowers. The nurses all looked exhausted and emotional, with one hugging her young nephew tightly.
Another nurse told New Delhi Television that the Islamic extremists did not mistreat the women after they moved them from their hospital in Tikrit to Mosul.
Another 76 Indians were also aboard the plane that flew them from Irbil, according to Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesman for India's foreign ministry.
After dropping off the nurses, the plane transported the others to the southern city of Hyderabad, Akbaruddin tweeted.
It remained unclear whether the nurses had been held by the militants or were just stranded in their territory. The Indian foreign ministry gave no details of how their freedom was secured.
According to the foreign ministry, 39 Indian construction workers abducted two weeks ago were still being held by the militants, but were safe and unharmed.
Speaking to reporters on Friday, Akbaruddin said that any details about the backroom diplomatic maneuvers that India undertook to free the nurses would compromise the safety of the construction workers.
About 10,000 Indians work and live in Iraq, but only about 100 are in violent, insecure areas.
The abducted construction workers were mostly from northern India and had been employed by the Tariq Noor al-Huda construction company.