A special Air India flight carrying 46 Indian nurses set free by Sunni militants in strife-torn Iraq and 137 others would first land in Mumbai and reach Kochi around noon on Saturday, a top airport official said.
The flight left Erbil for India at around 4.30am IST, he said.
From Kochi, the flight will proceed to Hyderabad and then Delhi, he said.
Besides the nurses, the plane is also carrying 137 other Indian nationals, including 70 from Kirkuk in the northern part of Iraq.
The ordeal of the nurses, who were working at a hospital in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, began when a swift Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) offensive was launched on June 9.
The nurses were moved out on Thursday against their will and detained in the militant-held city of Mosul, 250 km from Tikrit.
The Erbil International airport is about 80 km from Mosul.
A joint-secretary level IFS officer and a female IAS officer from Kerala are among the Indian officials travelling on the chartered flight.
Air India spokesperson in Kochi said there are 183 passengers, including 23 crew members and three government officials, onboard the flight.
The flight will make a ‘technical halt’ in Mumbai for refuelling and catering supplies.
According to information provided by Air India from Erbil, 46 nurses will get down at Kochi and around 100 other passengers are bound for Hyderabad, the spokesperson said.
Channels of diplomacy
The nurses, all of them from Kerala, crossed into semi-autonomous Kurdish territory at 7pm on Friday and were received by local authorities and Indian officials.
The Isis militants had forced the nurses out of the Tikrit Teaching Hospital on Thursday, threatening to blow up the building they had been holed up in.
The nurses were moved to Mosul, one of the first cities to be overrun by the the al Qaeda splinter group, and kept in a building.
In a move that took the nurses by surprise, the militants on Friday morning told them to get ready to leave for Erbil after breakfast as they were being freed.
Erbil governor Nawaz Hadi said the nurses arrived at a checkpoint and were being cared for by the Kurdish militia fighters, known as peshmerga.
The semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan in the north has escaped the mayhem caused by Isis militants who now control large parts of northern and western Iraq.
Sayona Thomas, a nurse from Palakkad in Kerala, rang up her home early Saturday to say they were being freed.
“We were in constant touch with the parents of the nurses as well. So we knew what was happening throughout,” Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy said.
The release took enormous efforts both within and outside Iraq as “conventional tools” of diplomacy did not work on the ground in the conflict zone, external affairs ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said.
He refused to go into details but sources said New Delhi was in touch with officials of various countries including the US and Turkey.
The insurgents had Thursday let go of a group of Turkish truck drivers.
External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj was in constant touch with her counterparts in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE to leverage their influence over the Sunii insurgents to seek the release of Indians being held captive, sources said.
The Indian side was in touch with various humanitarian organisations and Kurdish authorities for a safe passage for the nurses.
The militants didn’t harm the nurses and offered them water and biscuits, said officials and family members.
Relieved relatives thanked Swaraj, Chandy and MEA for their help.
“We don’t know how to express our gratitude,” said Sobha Sasikumar, mother of one of the freed nurses.
As nurses head home, there is little information about the 39 Indian workers who were snatched by Isis three weeks ago.
Akbaruddin said the government would “leave no stone unturned” to bring back the remaining Indian hostages home.