Efforts to evacuate Indians out of war-torn Yemen suffered a setback with Saudi Arabia refusing permission to land aircraft in Sanaa, saying it needed time to secure the skies from the missile stockpile of the Houthi rebels.
Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition of mainly Sunni Arab allies that has been carrying out air strikes to halt the advances of the Shia rebels who now control most of Yemen.
“The skies are not safe. Saudi Arabia has conveyed that it needs to neutralise the Cartouche missiles available with the Houthi rebels," a ministry of external affairs told HT on Thursday. The missiles have a range of 200km.
Of the 4,000-odd Indians stranded in Yemen, 3,100 are in the capital Sanaa. A group of 349 reached India on Thursday after they were rescued from the port city of Aden.
The government was working on a plan to escort Indians in batches and then move them in convoys from Sanaa to the Red Sea port of Hodeidah but the 250km and seven-hour journey is fraught with risks. The rebels are in control of both the cities.
“We have put this plan on hold for the moment as we need to hire private security,’’ a senior MEA official said. “We are concerned about the safety of our nationals but the situation is changing every two hours.”
A group of 342 Indians already present in Hodeidah, Yemen’s second largest port, is likely to sail out late on Thursday but those left behind in Sanaa are increasingly getting restless and worried.
While no Indian has been harmed in the fierce fighting between competing rebel groups fighting for control, the Modi government was concerned about the possibility of an Iraq-like hostage situation.
As reported by HT on Wednesday, a nurse said the Houthi rebels had come into the Sanaa hospital she was working with. Though the militants had not threatened them but they were scared, the nurse had said.
The government sees air evacuation as its best bet but is dependent on Saudi Arabia for landing rights. It is working diplomatic channels to get an early clearance for its aircraft waiting in neighbouring Oman for the last few days.