* More than half of 4,000 Indians in Yemen are nurses
* Situation “critical” due to Saudi air strikes, says returnee
* India evacuates 80 by air, 400 by ship
* Flights into Sanaa not possible at the moment - MEA
By D. Jose
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India, March 30 (Reuters) - India asked Saudi Arabia on Monday to help evacuate its citizens from Yemen, where more than 4,000 Indians, over half of them nurses, are caught up in fighting.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office said he had spoken by telephone with King Salman of Saudi Arabia and requested Riyadh’s “support and cooperation in the evacuation of Indian citizens from Yemen”.
King Salman assured Modi of all possible assistance to help them leave, it said in a statement.
Two Air India planes on standby in neighbouring Oman were unable to fly in to the Yemeni capital Sanaa on Monday despite what Indian officials said earlier were Saudi assurances that an air corridor would be opened.
The nurses, mostly from the southern state of Kerala, are often hired on harsh terms with middlemen taking up-front fees. Hospitals are reluctant to let them leave because they would have to close without foreign staff.
Sajeesh Mathew’s wife, 29-year-old nurse Asha, has worked for three years at the Al-Naqib Hospital in the port city of Aden, scene of fighting following the flight of Saudi-backed President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi last week.
“The areas around the hospital are now under the control of the Houthi rebels,” said Mathew, whose wife is one of 35 Indian nurses at the hospital.
Although no Indian casualties have been reported, the nurses’ predicament in Yemen recalls the ordeal suffered by 46 Indian nurses kidnapped in Iraq last year as Islamic State militants advanced on Tikrit.
The nurses were freed in June, in an early diplomatic triumph for Modi, but the fate of 39 Indian building workers captured in Mosul remains unclear.
Eighty Indians were flown out on Sunday to Djibouti, on the opposite shore of the Gulf of Aden, but no evacuation flights were possible on Monday, foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said.
He said 400 Indians were being evacuated by sea from Aden and would reach Djibouti on Tuesday. They will be flown home by the Indian Air Force.
New Delhi has issued a series of warnings this year to Indian nationals to leave Yemen, the last of them shortly before Saudi Arabia launched air strikes last Thursday against Iranian-allied Houthi militiamen.
Ruben Jacob Chandy heeded the call, taking a flight out of Sanaa and arriving back in the Keralan capital Thiruvananthapuram on Monday with a handful of other Indians who escaped the fighting.
“The situation is critical,” said Chandy. “The Saudis are carrying out a lot of air targeting - it starts from 6 p.m. until almost 6 a.m.”
An Indian navy patrol vessel involved in anti-piracy operations was heading for Aden, and would be joined by two more navy ships. Two passenger ships with the capacity to carry 1,100 people had also set sail from India, Akbaruddin said.
Indians returning from Yemen said the situation, especially in Aden, was grave.
“They cannot go out of their residences. Many are running out of water and food,” said Lijo George, an IT worker who returned to Kerala on Monday from Sanaa.
Speaking from the Military Hospital in Sanaa, paramedic Ranjith Cheerakathil said he and his wife, a nurse, had decided to stay. Most of the 240 Indian staff were waiting for a flight out.
“Most of the operations in the hospital will be shut down when they leave. There will not be anybody to care for those who suffer injuries in the attack,” Cheerakathil said by telephone.
“This is cruel. My conscience does not allow me to leave them like that.” (Additional reporting and writing by Douglas Busvine; Editing by Mike Collett-White)