Op Rahat surmounts risks to bring them home



By Sarosh Bana, APSM Correspondent, Mumbai

As a humanitarian catastrophe looms in war-torn Yemen – one of the poorest, driest and least developed countries in the world – India took the lead in staging a massive rescue effort to evacuate not only the Indians stranded there, but other nationalities as well.

The politically, diplomatically and militarily coordinated rescue mission, which was initiated on 31 March-1 April, ended on 10 April, with all 4,640 Indians, a vast majority of them nurses, and additionally 960 nationals from 41 other countries, having been transported safely back home.

On 6 April alone, India rescued more than 1,000 people by plane and ship, the country having been appealed to by 26 nations – including the United States, Germany, France, Sweden, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and Turkey – to help get their citizens out of the conflict zone.

On 25 March, seized of the growing instability in Yemen, the Indian government issued an advisory to all Indian nationals there to leave immediately, given the “fragile” security situation in that country. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud and Indian authorities negotiated extensively with their Saudi counterparts to secure safe access and safe passage for Indian ships and aircraft for the evacuation operations, codenamed Op Rahat (Hindi for ‘relief’).

With access to airports within Yemen fraught with risk, sealift was considered the safest option. The Indian Navy’s offshore patrol vessel (OPV), INS Sumitra, which was on anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden, was pressed into action for the operation and entered Aden Port on the east coast of Yemen on the night of 31 March and 1 April 2015. On the first day, the ship rescued 349 persons from the port that was under heavy fighting.

The Indian Navy also dispatched INS Mumbai, a Delhi-class guided missile destroyer, and INS Tarkash, a Talwar-class frigate, on the night of 30 March from Mumbai, the frigate escorting two passenger ships, MV Kavaratti and MV Coral, released from Kochi by the state-owned Shipping Corporation of India (SCI) to participate in the rescue mission. The Gulf of Aden comes under the operational area of the Mumbai-headquartered Western Naval Command of the Indian Navy and a high level of coordination between the Navy and various government agencies was achieved to pursue this rescue and evacuate effort.

While India’s Civil Aviation ministry diverted two Air-India planes for the air evacuation, the Indian Air Force (IAF) deployed two of its Boeing C-17 Globemaster III to transfer the evacuees from the tiny Red Sea state of Djibouti to Indian shores.

As the evacuees boarded the Indian ships, the vessels’ Medical Officers attended to those in need of medical care, with special care provided to pregnant women and the elderly. Considering that these individuals and families had undergone agony, faced threat to their lives and were ousted from their homes, leaving all their belongings behind, the Navy had instructed its personnel to ensure total comfort for the evacuees during their passage.

Consequently, living quarters of the crew were cleared to accommodate women, children, and the elderly. To ensure evacuation of maximum numbers, male evacuees were accommodated on upper decks under the cover of shamianas. The ships also arranged for hot meals for all evacuees. Each of the galleys, or kitchens, is designed to cater to only 100 persons (the average strength of the crew), but the Navy had two to three cooks of the ship working night and day to provide three times the usual meals, using the ships’ own rations.

Once back home, the entry documents of the returnees were processed promptly. The Indian Railways too rose to the occasion. Under instructions of Railway minister Suresh Prabhu, arrangements were made for temporary stay and also meals for those opting for rail travel to their respective destinations from Mumbai, and the tickets for their travels too were provided free.

There was one tragedy that too was tackled. Manjit Singh, an Indian national who was working on a foreign merchant vessel, Gulf Dove, had been grievously injured in a bomb blast in Aden and succumbed to his injuries in a hospital there. His body was carried by INS Tarkash to Djibouti, from where his remains, along with 450 people evacuated from the port city, were flown back India.

BOX on Yemen and the conflict

Half the population of 25 million of dirt poor Yemen lives below the poverty line and 40 per cent are malnourished. Its city of Sana’a may well become the first world capital to run out of water, largely on account of a burgeoning population and environmental mismanagement. Curiously, Yemen’s dryness is also compounded by the national addiction to qat, or khat, a narcotic flowering plant native to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian peninsula that is immensely water-intensive to cultivate.

This arid country on the southwestern tip of the Arabian peninsula was among those Arab countries wracked by rebellion sparked off in the wake of the Arab Spring that emerged on 18 December 2010 with the revolution in Tunisia. A small oil producer, with production from its careworn oil industry plummeting from 130 million barrels in 2006 to 54 million barrels in 2013, Yemen has a geo-strategic significance, abutting as it does the Bab al-Mandab strait, a waterway linking Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden through which much of the world’s oil shipments pass.

In 2011, the Shiite Houthi rebels, who follow the Shia Islam sect of Zaidism, joined revolts to topple Ali Abdullah Saleh, himself a Zaidi who had been president of Yemen since 1990. Saleh, who was previously president also of North Yemen from 1978 until unification with South Yemen in 1990, battled the Houthis while president, but allied with them against his successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, in a comeback bid. The Houthis struggled to oust Hadi as they were opposed to his 2014 plans for Yemen to be federated into six regions.

Last September, Houthi forces seized the Yemeni capital of Sana’a in the north of the country, forcing Hadi to abdicate and flee to his hometown of Aden to the south. As the Houthis advanced, Hadi fled from there too and took to the sea by boat. He is now believed to be in hiding in Saudi Arabia.

On 26 March, Saudi Arabia began air strikes in alliance with other Sunni Gulf countries against the Houthi forces. The rebels are reportedly patronised by Shiite Iran, though both parties deny all ties. Tehran has nevertheless condemned the allied air campaign as a “crime” and appealed for peace talks. The Saudi-led coalition has imposed an air and sea blockade on Yemen and is targeting the rebels with the aim of reinstalling Hadi as President.