India said on Sunday it will begin airlifting its nationals from war-torn Yemen after getting permission to fly from the capital Sanaa even as 15 people were killed as combat jets of a Saudi-led coalition targeted the headquarters of the Houthi rebels.
External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj said India was doing everything possible to evacuate its citizens from Yemen by land, sea and air routes. In addition to daily flights to airlift Indians, a ship will also be sent to the Arab nation, she said.
Swaraj’s remarks came hours after the Saudi-led coalition’s warplanes bombed the runway of Sanaa’s international airport and several bases of the rebels. The airstrikes killed 15 pro-rebel troops in Sanaa, media reports said.
“Today we got permission to fly from Sanaa for three hours a day. We will use this slot for evacuating our citizens every day,” Swaraj said in a tweet.
“In addition we are sending a ship with a capacity of 1500 passengers.”
Though one end of the runway of Sanaa airport was damaged, it had been repaired and the airstrip was now functional, she said in another tweet.
Swaraj said there are 4,144 Indian citizens in Yemen, including 3,100 in the capital, 500 in the southern port city of Aden and the remainder at other places.
Eighty Indians flew out of Sanaa in a commercial flight on Saturday.
Warplanes of the Arab coalition continued their raids against the Shia Houthi rebels and troops loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh for the fourth night. The airport in Sanaa was targeted for the first time and witnesses reported hearing three loud explosions and seeing a large fire when the facility was hit at midnight.
The air strikes also hit the headquarters of the rebel republican guard at Al-Subaha base in Sanaa, an airbase in rebel-held Hudaida in western Yemen, an artillery base in Saada, the northern stronghold of the rebels.
Saudi officials said the air strikes had pushed the rebels out of airbases. Brig Gen Ahmed bin Hasan Asiri was quoted by the state-run Saudi Press Agency as saying that the air strikes had destroyed all jet fighters. The warplanes were continuing to target Scud missiles, leaving most of their launch pads "devastated", he said.
Embattled President Abd-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who fled Sanaa after it was seized by the Houthis, called the rebels "puppets of Iran" and warned that they would face more attacks until they ended their uprising.
As the air strikes intensified, the Saudi navy evacuated dozens of diplomats and the UN pulled out international staff from Yemen.
A majority of the Indians in Yemen are nurses and paramedical staff, most of them from Kerala. KC Joseph, the state minister for non-resident Keralites affairs, estimated that 70% of the Indians were nurses and paramedical staff. He said most of the Indians wanted to return as there is “no scope for them to remain in Yemen”.
“I have spoken to the Indian ambassador and some of the people from Kerala. They are very worried by the large-scale bombing at night. Some even said bombs had fallen 200 to 300 metres from where they are staying,” Joseph told Hindustan Times.
He said external affairs minister Swaraj had informed chief minister Oommen Chandy that India will urge the Gulf Cooperation Council to persuade Saudi Arabia to lift the no-fly zone it had imposed over Yemen so that stranded Indians can be airlifted.
“The ban on flights is causing problems. Less than 100 Indians were able to leave on one flight from Sanaa yesterday (Saturday),” he said.
About 15 nurses from Kerala were among the 80 Indians who left Sanaa for Djibouti, where the Indian mission will assist them in returning home. Some of the people from Kerala were planning to return via Qatar, Joseph said.
Saudi Arabia cobbled together a 10-nation coalition to combat the Houthis after they made advances across Yemen. Dozens of civilians have died in the air strikes and fighting has also been reported between Houthi rebels and supporters of President Hadi.
The Arab League, which is meeting in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh, on Sunday called for the creation of a voluntary Arab military force that can intervene to counter challenges which threaten the security of any member. The League urged the Houthis to “immediately withdraw from Sanaa, government institutions” and surrender.