BAGHDAD: More than 40 Indian nurses who were trapped by in territory captured by Islamic militants who have overrun much of Iraq in recent weeks are safe and will fly home this week, an Indian official said Friday.
The nurses, 46 in all, had been stranded for more than a week at a hospital in the Iraqi city of Tikrit, which Sunni militants, including fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) extremist group, captured last month. Officials say that the nurses were moved this week to the militant-held city of Mosul farther north.
Chief minister of Kerala state in India, Oommen Chandy, said Friday that the nurses will return home on a special aircraft arranged by the Indian government. They are expected to arrive in the southern city of Kochi.
"We are thankful to the government of India," Chandy said.
The nurses were believed to be traveling from Mosul to the largely autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, and were expected to arrive in the regional capital of Irbil. It was not immediately clear whether they had crossed over into the Kurdish self-rule area yet or not.
"We are waiting for the arrival of the nurses from Mosul in coordination with the Indian ambassador," said Nawaz Shadi, the governor of Irbil province. "The checkpoints and the security forces are waiting for their arrival in Irbil and then for them to return to their country."
It remained unclear whether the nurses had been held by the extremist group or were just stranded in their territory. Neither Indian or Iraqi officials have offered any details.
According to the Indian Foreign Ministry, 39 Indian construction workers were also abducted two weeks ago near Mosul and were being held by the militants, but were safe and unharmed.
About 10,000 Indians work and live in Iraq, but only about 100 are in violent, insecure areas.
ISIS released Thursday 32 Turkish who were captured in Mosul. The group still holds nearly 50 people who were seized at the Turkish consulate in the city last month.
Also Friday, Iraqi government airstrikes targeted Islamic militants trying to capture the country's largest oil refinery, reportedly killing as many as 30 insurgents, authorities said.
Fighters from ISIS have been trying for weeks to capture the Baiji facility, located some 250 kilometers north of Baghdad. The group appeared on the verge of taking the refinery last month, but military troops managed to hold on and have since received reinforcements to help bolster their defenses.
A government plane targeted around eight vehicles attacking government forces at the facility north of Baghdad early Friday morning, said Sabah al-Nuaman, the spokesman for Iraq's counterterrorism services. He said that up to 30 militants were killed.
Nuaman also said that a helicopter gunship hit a house in the town of Qaim near the Syrian border where a gathering of ISIS' local leaders was taking place. He said that there were several casualties, but did not have a concrete figure.
The militants took control of Qaim, which controls a border crossing with Syria, last month during their blitz across Iraq, and now control a vast stretch of territory straddling the two countries.