Ukraine: Indian Student Killed in Kharkiv; IAF Pressed Into Action for Evacuation

New Delhi: The Ministry of External Affairs confirmed on Tuesday (March 1) afternoon that an Indian student was killed in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, as the Russian attack on the country intensified.

The Indian foreign secretary, the MEA spokesperson continued, is calling the ambassadors of Russia and Ukraine to reiterate the demand that all Indian nationals should be allowed to leave Ukraine safely, and their passage ensure.

Pooja Praharaj, a postgraduate student, who is the students’ coordinator for about 1,200 students at Kharkiv medical university, was speaking with another Indian student who had come to borrow urgent money when the latter got a phone call at around 8:50 am local time. “He picked it up and told me that he can’t understand that a lady was speaking in Russian. I spoke to her and she said that she was speaking from the phone of the Indian who had been brought to the morgue. She asked us to pick up his body and belongings,” she told The Wire.

Naveen S.G., 21, who had been living in the metro stations with others to protect himself from the constant shelling, had gone to buy food at a supermarket near the city centre. “Now everyone has to stand at the queue for about two to three hours. First we thought he had been shot, but no, it was the blast at the city centre,” she said from Kharkiv. She sent a video capture of the blast which took place around 8 am.

While the students who had been in hostels were living in the basements, those who were in flats had gone to the metro stations since February 24. Due to the continuous fighting, Naveen’s friends have not yet been able to go to the morgue. With students unable to go out to replenish their supplies, they are not sure about their survival. “We have just one day of food left with us. Our drinking water has run out and we are right now on tap water, which is not healthy as it is highly chlorinated.”

Official sources stated that the deteriorating situation in Kharkiv is a “matter of grave concern”.

“We had already taken up with the Russian and Ukrainian embassies the pressing requirement of safe passage for Indian nationals, including students, from Kharkiv and other cities in conflict zones,” they said. The Indian side has sought an urgent response from Russia and Ukraine.

Modi chairs meeting, IAF pressed into action

In the aftermath of the student’s death, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked the Indian Air Force (IAF) to evacuate Indians stranded in Ukraine. The IAF is likely to deploy several C-17 aircraft as part of “Operation Ganga” from Tuesday, they said.

Till now, only private Indian carriers have been evacuating Indians from Romania and Hungary, countries with land borders with Ukraine on the western side, as the Ukrainian airspace has been shut since February 24.

India began the evacuation of around 14,000 of its stranded citizens on February 26.

In a statement on Tuesday, the IAF said it is geared up for any evacuation operations.

C-17 is IAF’s largest transport aircraft and it has the capacity to carry approximately 300 passengers in it during a humanitarian relief mission.

In order to scale up the ongoing evacuation efforts under Operation Ganga, Modi has called for the IAF to join the exercise, the sources said.

Indians are travelling by road to Ukraine’s borders with Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland etc, from where they are being taken by the Indian government officials to the airports for the evacuation flights.

Modi chaired a high-level meeting on Tuesday evening on the Ukraine crisis with a focus on the evacuation of Indian citizens from the war-hit country.

Previous developments

Earlier in the morning, the Indian embassy in Kyiv has advised all Indian nationals to leave the Ukrainian capital city “urgently” by train or any other means available.

The latest advisory appears to indicate that Russian forces could be close to launching a full scale attack on Kyiv. The second largest Ukrainian city of Kharkiv had last night been pummelled with strikes.

More than 70 Ukrainian servicemen were killed when Russian troops shelled a military base in the town of Okhtyrka in Ukraine‘s northeastern Sumy region on Monday, regional governor Dmytro Zhyvytskyy said on Facebook.

Meanwhile, external affairs minister S. Jaishankar has announced on Twitter that the ninth flight carrying Indian nationals stranded in Ukraine has set off from Bucharest to New Delhi.

NDTV reported students as having complained that they were “attacked with sticks” and “thrown out of trains” when they went to a station to catch a train to Uzhhrohod or Lviv from Kyiv. The Indian embassy had earlier cautioned students to maintain their cool, noting that Ukrainians have been “remarkably supportive” to evacuation efforts in spite of the fact that they were under dire attack.

The embassy also spoke of long waits and said there might even be cancellations.

A number of students evacuated from Ukraine arrived in Mumbai by an Air India Express flight from the Romanian capital Bucharest on Tuesday morning.

Talking to reporters at the Mumbai airport, one of the evacuees, Nishi Malkani said the university where she was studying is located in west Ukraine, where the situation is comparatively better.

“We hid in our hostels for a couple of days and then managed to reach the western border quickly. Thousands of students in educational institutions in the eastern parts of Ukraine are facing a grim situation as travelling by road from there is extremely difficult,” she said.

A large number of the SOS tweets that relatives of students and nationals were sending to the Indian government’s evacuation helpline account @opganga concerned people stranded in Lviv and Kharkiv cities.

“My nephew Anihrudh Chauhan studing MBBS in kharkiv Ukraine n at present stuck at Kharkiv Ukraine,” wrote a user. The government account replied to the tweet, noting that the embassy has advised Kharkiv residents to stay put until the curfew is lifted in the city which was recently attacked.

Russia intensifies attack

A huge Russian armoured column bore down on Kyiv on Tuesday, after the lethal shelling of civilian areas in Ukraine’s second largest city raised fears that frustrated Russian commanders could resort to more devastating tactics.

Nearly a week since after Moscow launched war on its neighbour it has failed to capture a single major Ukrainian city after running into unexpectedly fierce resistance.

Western countries fear that Russian commanders could now unleash the tactics they employed in Syria and Chechnya in recent decades, when they pulverised civilian areas, killing thousands, as they sent in their tanks.

Oil company Shell became the latest Western firm to announce it was pulling out of Russia. International sanctions and global financial isolation have had a sudden and devastating impact on Russia’s economy, with the rouble in freefall and queues outside banks as Russians rush to salvage their savings.

US satellite company Maxar released pictures showing tanks and fuel trucks snaking along a highway from the north, bearing down on Kyiv along 40 miles (60 km) of highway.

“For the enemy, Kyiv is the key target,” President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who has remained in the capital rallying Ukrainians with regular video updates, said in his latest message overnight. “We did not let them break the defence of the capital, and they send saboteurs to us … We will neutralise them all.”

Ukrainian authorities also reported 70 soldiers killed in a rocket attack in a town between Kyiv and Kharkiv.

“The Russian advance on Kyiv has made little progress over the past 24 hours probably as a result of continuing logistical difficulties,” the British defence ministry said in a military intelligence update on Tuesday.

But it also warned of a shift in Russian tactics putting civilians in greater peril: “The use of heavy artillery in densely populated urban areas greatly increases the risk of civilian casualties.”

The city that bore the brunt of the attack on Monday was Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, with 1.5 million people, located near the Russian border in eastern Ukraine. Officials say dozens of people were killed and injured on Monday by missile strikes that hit civilian areas.

“Barbaric rocket attacks and MLRS (multiple launch rocket systems) of peaceful cities are evidence that they are no longer able to fight armed Ukrainians,” Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov said on Facebook.

Human rights groups and Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States accused Russia of using cluster bombs and vacuum bombs, weapons normally banned in civilian areas. The United States said it had no confirmation of their use.

Russia has not given a full account of its battlefield losses, but pictures from Ukraine have shown burnt-out Russian tanks and bodies on the road where they have been attacked by Ukrainian defenders.

Ukraine’s general staff said Russian losses included 5,710 personnel, 29 destroyed and damaged aircraft and 198 tanks, all figures that could not be verified.

Ceasefire talks held on Monday at the Belarus border failed to reach a breakthrough. Negotiators have not said when a new round would take place.

Putin’s Russia faces near total international isolation over his decision to launch what he called a “special military operation” to disarm Ukraine and capture “neo-Nazis and drug addicts” that lead it.

Most devastating for Russia have been sanctions on its central bank that prevent it from using its $630 billion foreign reserve war chest to prop up the rouble.

Featured image: The passport belonging to Naveen S.G., the Indian student killed in Kharkiv.

This article was first published on The Wire.

(With agency inputs)