NEW DELHI — A group of 46 Indian nurses held "against their will" in a part of Iraq seized by Islamic militants returned home on Saturday to an emotional reunion with their families.
The relatives, clutching bouquets and hoisting "Welcome Home" banners, thronged the nurses as they emerged into the airport in the southern Kerala state city of Kochi, tearfully embracing them.
"We're happy and relieved," one unidentified nurse told local television stations.
The nurses found themselves trapped while working in a state-run hospital in Tikrit when jihadists launched their lightning offensive last month.
They had been moved from Saddam Hussein's hometown to the militant-held city of Mosul on Thursday "against their will", the Indian foreign ministry has said.
Circumstances surrounding the nurses' release remain unclear and the foreign ministry said it could not divulge details.
The nurses told reporters at the airport they had no complaints about their treatment by the rebels.
"They took care of us," one nurse told reporters.
The nurses boarded a chartered plane for India early Saturday from the city of Arbil, the Kurdish regional capital, where they had been shifted the previous day.
"I thank god for keeping my daughter safe in her hours of peril. She had gone to Iraq . . . to make our lives better," M.V. Retnamma, the mother of one nurse.
"I can see her alive. For the last 25 days, we were praying for her safe return," Retnamma said as she joyfully welcomed her daughter Monisha.
Many Indian workers travel to the Gulf to seek better paid employment.
Around 10,000 Indian expatriates were working in Iraq before the jihadist offensive, according to the Indian government, and dozens have come home.
Some of the nurses who returned Saturday had previously resisted coming back as they had borrowed money to travel to Iraq and were worried about repayment.
"I'd taken a loan for going to Iraq. (But) I will not dare to go back to Iraq. Enough is enough," nurse Sincy Sebastian told AFP.
Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, who welcomed the nurses at the airport, attributed their safe return to "joint efforts" by India's foreign ministry, embassies and his state.
After Kochi, the flight was going to Hyderabad city and New Delhi to drop some 137 other Indian nationals who were in Iraq and had wished to return.
Nurse Marina Jose told NDTV news channel before leaving for India: "We never thought we will come back."
But she added in apparent reference to the rebels, "They didn't harm anyone. They didn't touch even. They talked nicely."
The nurses' group was separate from 39 Indian construction workers being held in Mosul, Iraq's second-biggest city and the first to fall in the jihadist-led offensive that has encompassed territory north and west of Baghdad.
The trapping of the workers in swathes of Iraq overrun by militants has presented the first foreign crisis for the new right-wing government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The foreign affairs ministry has said releasing information about how the nurses were freed could jeopardize the security of other Indians in Iraq, including the construction workers.
Militants led by the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group launched their offensive June 9, and swiftly seized large chunks of five provinces, sparking a crisis and alarming world leaders.