Till noon on Friday, the ministry of external affairs (MEA) was on a wing and a prayer. Pressure was mounting on it to secure the release of 46 Indian nurses taken by the ISIS from Tikrit to Mosul. Then, the prayer was answered: one of the nurses called up her mother in Kerala and told her, they have been released.
It was a major diplomatic achievement for the Narendra Modi government. A deal was struck with the ISIS through intermediaries. Was a ransom paid? MEA spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said "no".
It is believed help from friendly countries in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia, helped salvage the situation. Akbaruddin said normal diplomatic channels does not work in conflict zones. But then, by sending a warship to the region, the government had also kept other options ready.
By 2pm, the 46 nurses were once again "on the road". This time, on the road to freedom. The ISIS, for reasons not known, piled them into buses and drove them to the Erbil border in Kurdistan.
After four checkpoints, the nurses were received by Indian officials in Erbil and put up in a hotel close to the international airport. A Boeing 777 was on its way to Erbil to bring them to Kochi, where the plane will land on Saturday morning.
Kerala chief minister Oomen Chandy, who was in Delhi, with wife and son, coordinating with MEA, took a flight out at 6pm, headed for Kochi. He was generous enough to share "credit" for the achievement with the MEA, and the Indian embassy in Baghdad.
Akbarudin called it a day of dramatic developments, which ended in a "hope and triumph". He took potshots at the media for living a "hopeless" life.
To ensure a smooth return of the nurses, the MEA has sent SK Sinha, a joint secretary, to coordinate with the Kurdish authorities/take any last minute decisions. As the negotiations with the captors had begun with friendly countries, an Indian team was already in Erbil to overlook negotiations. "Hope has triumphed. The nurses moved against their will are free," Akbaruddin said.
Understandably, he refused to share details that led to the release of the nurses. Revealing the hand now would hamper efforts to secure the release of 39 Indian construction workers kidnapped from Mosul early on in the ISIS onslaught. "Any disclosure of operational details will harm prospects of release of others," Akbaruddin said.
Bringing out Indians from Iraq was the first major foreign policy challenge facing PM Narendra Modi. About 10,000 Indians work in Iraq. Scores of them have returned to India since fighting began. The government says some 1500 people are ready to fly home.