India nurses in Iraq conflict 'to be freed'

A group of 46 Indian nurses trapped in Iraq are to be freed, one of them told AFP Friday, in a rare piece of positive news in a crisis threatening "Syria-like chaos".

The nurses, who were working at a hospital in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit when a swift jihadist-led offensive began last month, are currently being held in the militant-held city of Mosul.

They are expected to move to the Kurdish regional capital Arbil where Indian officials are waiting to receive them and fly them home.

The abductions, along with the capture of 39 other Indian workers in Mosul, have left Indian authorities scrambling to secure their release and their fate is the first foreign crisis for the new right-wing government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

"Some here... they are saying... we will go to Arbil," Tincy Thomas, one of the nurses, told AFP by telephone, adding that the group had recently been moved to Mosul from Tikrit, where their ordeal began on June 11.

An Indian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the group were expected later on Friday in Arbil, which is a short drive from Mosul but has been insulated from the unrest.

The diplomat said that a team of Indian government officials were waiting to receive them in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, and that arrangements were being made to fly the nurses back to India.

Sayona Thomas, a nurse from Palakad in southern Kerala, called her father to tell him that their captors had agreed to release them.

-- Home on Saturday --

"My daughter told me that today the militants have agreed to release them and are taking them to Arbil airport. We are so happy and I thank God for everything," he told the Indian channel Manorama News.

Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy, who has been in New Delhi consulting with the government, also confirmed the imminent release of the nurses.

"I hope that they all reach home tomorrow (Saturday). It's happy news for Kerala," he told AFP by telephone.

Reports say they are set to fly into the southern city of Kochi in Kerala on Saturday morning.

The diplomat reached by AFP said that the group was separate from another 39 Indian workers being held in Mosul, Iraq's second-biggest city and the first to fall in an offensive that has overrun swathes of territory north and west of Baghdad.

The father of one of the nurses, Chakiriyamthadathil Joseph from southern Kerala state, reported that five of the women had sustained minor injuries while being moved from Tikrit to Mosul due to an explosion.

- 'Not to worry' -

"She told us not to worry and asked us to pray," Joseph told AFP, saying he had spoken to his daughter on her mobile phone late on Thursday which she had hidden from her captors.

The father of a second nurse called Shruti S. Nair, like Joseph from the Kottayam district of Kerala, said that his daughter was unharmed and the women had been treated well.

A spokesman for the Indian foreign ministry, confirming the nurses were changing location on Thursday, denied there had been a bomb blast but said some of them had sustained minor injuries from broken glass.

India estimates that around 120 of its nationals have been caught up in the unrest in Iraq, where some 10,000 Indian expatriates are working.

The country's foreign ministry last month announced it would stop granting its nationals permission to travel to Iraq for work, while it advised those travelling for other purposes to cancel their plans.

Along with the Indian workers caught up in the violence, dozens of Turkish nationals have also been seized.

More than 30 Turkish truck drivers were freed on Thursday after three weeks in captivity, but a separate group of almost 50 Turks seized in an attack on the Turkish consulate in Mosul last month remain in captivity.

Militants led by the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group launched a lightning offensive on June 9, and swiftly took control of large chunks of five provinces.

UN special envoy Nickolay Mladenov has warned that Iraq risks descending into "Syria-like chaos".