Kochi/Hyderabad/New Delhi: Ending a tense period, 183 Indians stranded in strife-torn Iraq, including 122 nurses - 46 from Kerala freed by Iraqi insurgents, 52 from Telangana and 24 from Andhra Pradesh - arrived home Saturday to a grand welcome while 200 more were on their way.
A special Air India flight from Erbil, capital of Iraq`s Kurdistan region, carrying the 183 landed in Kochi close to noon with Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and his cabinet colleagues, legislators, Lok Sabha members and state government officials waiting to receive them.
The 78 from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, including the 76 nurses, later reached Hyderabad by the special flight and officials were making arrangements to send them to their respective hometowns.
The evacuated Indians also included 15 from Gujarat`s Navsari who came to Delhi, and from there, boarded a flight to Mumbai, on way to their homes.
The external affairs ministry said that another 200 Indians to Delhi will return Saturday night by a special Iraqi Airways chartered flight from Najaf.
In the next 48 hours, approximately another 400 Indians would be returning to various destinations, including Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad, through commercial flights, said ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin.
About 1,200 Indians would have returned to India at government cost by Monday, while the Indian mission in Baghdad has been able to persuade Iraqi companies to send back approximately 600 other Indian nationals, while processing the papers for 400 others.
Welcoming return of Kerala nurses from Iraq, Congress leader Amarinder Singh Saturday urged the government to intensify its efforts for freeing 39 Indians, mostly from Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, being held hostage in Mosul.
At Kochi, arrangements were made for three family members of each nurse to go inside the airport to receive them. A special immigration desk was set up for them.
It was a mad scramble, with anxious family members hugging and kissing their dear ones.
While some cried in happiness, others were seen clutching the hands of toddlers, most of them children of these nurses, who for the past nearly three weeks never imagined such an arrival.
Sandra Sebastian, one of the nurses, told the media at Kochi airport that she was very scared when they were taken away by the insurgents.
"... very afraid... will not go back," she said in broken English.
Chandy earlier said that at one point of time, he had lost all hope as the plane did not get permission to land in Erbil because of strong winds.
He thanked External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj for all her efforts.
Reports earlier said many nurses protested at Erbil airport, saying they won`t board the plane unless they are paid their four months` salary arrears but finally agreed after Indian officials persuaded them.
Seena, a nurse from Kannur, said for 23 days they lived in isolation at Tikrit, their workplace.
"Our patience was running out... gun-toting men came to our building in the hospital campus Thursday. They asked us to pack our things and all they gave us was 15 minutes.
"We were told to enter one of the four buses parked outside... and in a few minutes, we saw the first and third floor of our building go up in flames," she said.
Another nurse said, "never in our dreams, we thought that these armed men would be our saviours".
"We had no clue... whether they were going to kill us or they would be our saviours.
"On our eight-hour drive to Mosul, the kind behaviour of these people surprised all of us," adding they stopped at many places and gave the nurses water, biscuits and food.
Another nurse could not hide her happiness on being back with her family. Recounting her story, she said: "Once in Mosul, they put us in a big room and we were given beds and food. We feel that the new government there helped us reach here safely. We thank each and everyone who prayed for our return and also all the authorities who helped us," she said.
The Kerala government made arrangements for the nurses to travel in hired vehicles, while the lone nurse from Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu was provided with a railway ticket to her home town.
The plane had earlier landed in Mumbai for refuelling and for taking aboard food for the passengers.
Meanwhile, UAE-based Indian businessman B.R. Shetty offered the 46 nurses jobs in hospitals he owns across the Gulf country, Nepal, Bhutan and India. In advertisements in Kerala newspapers, he asked the nurses to contact his office if interested.