India fears hostage crisis in war-ravaged Yemen as evacuation gathers pace

  • Harinder Baweja, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Apr 02, 2015 01:47 IST

Fearing an Iraq-like crisis when a group of Indian nurses was taken captive briefly by gun-toting militants, the Narendra Modi government has accelerated evacuation of 4,000 Indians from strife-torn Yemen.

While 349 Indians were evacuated from the Yemeni port city of Aden late Tuesday, the efforts suffered a setback when an aircraft was denied permission to land in the capital Sanaa Wednesday.

At least 3,000 Indian — half of them nurses — remain confined to their places of work in the Arab country, which is in the grip of its most severe crisis in years, as competing forces fight for control.

“We are concerned about a hostage-taking situation,’’ a ministry of external affairs official said Wednesday.

HT spoke to several nurses in Sanaa. “We’re scared. Houthi rebels have come into the hospital though they have not issued any threat so far. We hope we are not taken hostage like the nurses in Tikrit,’’ said a nurse who has been in Yemen for more than a year now. She didn’t want her identity revealed.

Several nurses said they had registered with the Indian embassy to leave Yemen and others were opting to exit and re-enter. But many were waiting for salaries and experience certificates from hospital authorities.

Boys hold weapons as Shiite rebels known as Houthis gather to protest against Saudi-led air strikes, during a rally in Sanaa, Yemen. (AP Photo)

“By six in the evening, we start hearing the sound of machine-gun fire. Warplanes streak across the sky almost all night. This has been going on for the last one week,’’ said Leya Joseph, a nurse with a government hospital in Sanaa.

A Saudi Arabia-led coalition began an air campaign against the Houthis rebels on March 26. The strikes aim to weaken the Shia rebels, also allied with forces loyal to deposed president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and halt their power grab.

More than 300 Indians waiting at the Sanaa airport with boarding passes were forced to return Wednesday after their aircraft was not allowed to land.

“The skies are currently being controlled by Saudi Arabia and the permission to land did not come through,’’ an MEA official confirmed.

Elizabeth Joseph, a nurse, was among those who waited in vain for five hours at the airport. “We sat like refugees for hours. The situation is critical. Isn’t the Indian government worried about us? Is there any hope for us?’’ she said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had Monday sought Saudi Arabia’s help for the safe and early evacuation of Indians.

“My family is very worried and I get regular calls from Kerala,” Sajida VS, a nurse with a private hospital in Sanaa, said. “I have stocked up on ration and right now we have food and water in the hospital hostel but I’m not sure how long this will last…’’

Followers of the Houthi group demonstrate against the Saudi-led air strikes on Yemen, in Sanaa. (Reuters)

The coalition warplanes bombed rebel positions in both north and south Yemen early Wednesday, setting off explosions. Thirty-five factory workers were killed in a western port city.

Six nights of airstrikes have left the health authorities overwhelmed. “The number of wounded is going up… Our medical supplies are stranded as we haven’t got permission to fly them in to Sanaa from our Jordan warehouse,’’ Marie Claire, a communications officer with the International Committee of the Red Cross, said.

The ground situation is showing little signs of improving. MEA officials are hoping it doesn’t reach an Iraq-like point when the government had no choice but to tell 46 nurses to board the bus brought in by the gunmen of an outfit working with the Islamic State, which controls swathes of Syria and Iraq.

The crisis ended after the bus was allowed into Erbil in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan where a team of Indian delegates was waiting to bring the nurses back home.”

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