BAGHDAD (AP) — More than 40 Indian nurses who were trapped in territory captured by Islamic militants crossed into Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdish region Friday and will be under the protection of local security forces until flying home later in the day, authorities said.
The nurses 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 extremist group, captured last month. Officials say the nurses were moved this week to the militant-held city of Mosul farther north.
Nawaz Hadi, the governor of Irbil province in the self-rule Kurdish region, said the nurses arrived at a checkpoint and were being cared for by the Kurdish militia fighters, known as peshmerga.
"All the nurses are safe with the peshmerga in Irbil," Hadi told The Associated Press. "After this, they will travel to the airport in Irbil and return home. They are very tired."
Earlier Friday, chief minister of Kerala state in India, Oommen Chandy, said the nurses would return to the southern Indian city of Kochi on a special aircraft arranged by the Indian government.
It remained unclear whether the nurses had been held by the extremist group or were just stranded in their territory. Neither Indian nor Iraqi officials have offered details.
According to the Indian Foreign Ministry, 39 Indian construction workers were 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.
On Thursday, the Islamic State group released 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 troops captured the village of Awja — the birthplace of former dictator Saddam Hussein — south of Tikrit, military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said.
The push through Awja is part of an ongoing military offensive that ultimately aims to retake Tikrit.
North of the city, 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 the Islamic State group have been trying for weeks to capture the Beiji facility, located some 250 kilometers (155 miles) 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 up to 30 militants were killed.
Al-Nuaman also said a helicopter gunship hit a house in the town of Qaim near the Syrian border where a gathering of the Islamic State group's local leaders was taking place. He said 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.
Naqvi reported from New Delhi.