President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo said on Monday (16/01) that he already has the name of the next Air Force chief, who will replace Air Marshall Agus Supriatna, center. (Antara Foto/Hafidz Mubarak A.)

Air Evacuation Bid for Indonesians in Yemen Stalls


APRIL 03, 2015

Jakarta. An Indonesian Air Force plane sent to evacuate thousands of Indonesians from Yemen failed to reach the conflict-wracked state, landing instead in the neighboring country of Oman, officials said on Friday.

More than 4,000 Indonesian are trapped in Yemen, Vice President Jusuf Kalla said on Tuesday, and Indonesia’s understaffed embassy in the capital Sanaa has so far been unable to cope.

Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) chief Gen. Moeldoko announced on Thursday that an Air Force plane, carrying a 14-person-strong “advance team” from the Foreign Ministry, flew out that evening.

A backup plane will be sent if deemed necessary, he added.

But Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir said the aircraft could not enter Yemeni airspace due to safety concerns, landing instead in Salalah, Oman, on Friday morning.

The plane will fly out Indonesians now seeking refuge in Oman as well as in Jizan, Saudi Arabia, to the nearest commercial airport.

“There are already 262 Indonesian citizens now in Jizan. They are being repatriated back to Indonesia via Salalah using an Air Force plane. [From Salalah] they will continue their flight [back to Indonesia] using commercial airlines,” Arrmanatha said on Friday.

The spokesman said that given the current security situation, it was best that the remaining Indonesian citizens be evacuated by land.

Violence has been spreading across Yemen since last year, when Shiite Houthi fighters seized Sanaa and effectively removed President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. A Saudi-led coalition has hit the rebels with air strikes over the past week.

The Indonesian government has evacuated at least 360 people since the conflict escalated last week. The latest to be evacuated was a group of 190 people who were transported by land from Sanaa to Al Hudaydah, near the country’s border with Saudi Arabia, on Tuesday.

The government has brought home 141 Indonesians using commercial flights since February, when Yemen’s security situation began to rapidly deteriorate.

Moeldoko said he had been in discussions with the defense attache at the Indian Embassy in Yemen and that some of the trapped Indonesians would leave Yemen aboard an Indian warship.

Arrmanatha said some 100 Indonesians were now on board another warship traveling from Djibouti.

As of Thursday, the ship was still docked in the southern Yemen city of Aden. Local security forces have not given the green light for the ship to sail out of the country.

The government has sent more officials to help the three-man staff at the Indonesian Embassy in Sanaa with the evacuation process.

The additional manpower, including officers from the National Police, are in charge of managing all the security details of the evacuation as well as several safe houses in Yemen.

Indonesians in the country have been told to convene at these houses, after which officers will find the best means to transport them out of the country.

The safe houses are mainly in Sanaa, where most Indonesians reside, some three to four hours’ drive from the border with Saudi Arabia.

Arrmanatha said the Thai Embassy in Sanaa had asked its Indonesian counterpart to host two of its citizens in one of the safe houses.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry’s director of consular and legal affairs, Lalu Muhammad Iqbal, said Indonesian diplomats in Saudi Arabia were also told to help with the evacuation process.

Iqbal said the government had also opened more safe houses across Yemen, including in Aden and Al Hudaydah.

“The situation [in Yemen] is very dynamic,” he said. “We are trying to find the safest and quickest option.”

Iqbal said Foreign Minister Retno L.P. Marsudi planned to get assistance from China.

China has said it helped 10 countries evacuate 225 of their citizens from Yemen, where Iran-allied Houthi rebels have seized the two main cities — the first time Beijing has assisted in the evacuation of foreign nationals during an international crisis.

A Chinese missile frigate carried the foreign nationals from the Port of Aden, bound for Djibouti,on Thursday afternoon, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement on its website late Thursday.

China said the countries — Pakistan, Ethiopia, Singapore, Italy, Germany, Poland, Ireland, Britain, Canada and Yemen — requested China’s help with the evacuation, Reuters reported.

China had earlier evacuated 571 of its own nationals, along with eight foreigners who worked for Chinese companies.

Once-reclusive China has become increasingly active in disaster relief and humanitarian aid abroad as its global economic interests widen.

“China has been keen to learn from the experience of other countries on how to evacuate people, especially after Libya,” said one senior Western diplomat in Beijing. “It’s good to see China taking more of an interest in this.”

A low-key diplomatic player in the Middle East despite its reliance on oil from the region, China has voiced concern at the surge in violence in Yemen and called for a political solution.

Beijing drew international praise last year when it sent elite troops to help Ebola-hit Liberia by building a treatment center and helping transport medical supplies.

China also sent a state-of-the-art hospital ship to the Philippines in 2013 after one of the world’s biggest typhoons killed thousands.

On Friday, rebel forces withdrew from Yemeni President Hadi’s palace in his former southern stronghold of Aden after overnight air raids by the Saudi-led coalition, a senior official said.

The rebels had seized the hilltop complex a day earlier after fierce fighting with supporters of Hadi, who has taken refuge in Saudi Arabia.

“The Houthi militia and their allies withdrew before dawn from the Al-Maashiq palace,” said the official in Aden, who did not want to be named.

Under pressure from pro-Hadi fighters, the rebel forces retreated to the nearby central district of Khor Maksar.

A security source and the official Saudi news agency SPA also reported the rebels had quit the palace.

The Saudi-led coalition launched an air war, called Operation Decisive Storm, on March 26 to try to stop an advance by Shiite Houthi rebels and allied military units loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Hadi fled to Aden from Sanaa after the rebels seized power in the capital in February, and the southern palace came under fire from warplanes twice during his stay.

He went into hiding last week as the Houthis bore down on what was his last stronghold, later surfacing in the Saudi capital as Riyadh launched air strikes on the rebels.

UN aid chief Valerie Amos said on Thursday that 519 people had been killed and nearly 1,700 injured in two weeks of fighting in Yemen, adding she was “extremely concerned” for the safety of trapped civilians.

Additional reporting from Reuters & Agence France-Presse