An Air India flight en route to Kyiv to bring back Indian citizens was forced to turn back mid-way on Thursday morning because Ukraine closed its airspace after Russian forces launched an attack on that country from three directions. The flight was one of the special ferry services that India started on Wednesday to repatriate around 18,000 Indian nationals, mostly students, from Ukraine.
AI 1947 took off from Indira Gandhi International Airport at 7.30 a.m. and was airborne for two hours when it turned back. This was the second repatriation flight planned by Air India this week. A flight on Tuesday brought back 242 passengers, comprising mostly of students.
The Ukrainian State Air Traffic Services Enterprise announced early on Thursday morning that it was closing Ukraine’s airspace for civilian users due to the “high risk of aviation safety”. This followed restrictions imposed by Russia on civilian air traffic in the airspace of northeastern Ukraine.
It was a lucky escape for 182 Indian nationals on a Ukraine International Airlines flight that left Kyiv hours before the airspace ban and landed in Delhi at 7.45 a.m.
The closure of the Ukrainian airspace, however, has created a challenge for Indian students scattered across various cities of Ukraine. Many of them have witnessed and heard the loud bombing raids carried out by Russian helicopters, fighter jets and missiles.
“We are still in Kyiv and woke up by a loud bang 15 minutes back from Boryspil airport side,” said Baroon Varma, an Indian student in the city through a message on the social media. Boryspil is the largest airport of Kyiv and is located nearly 30 km from the eastern limits of Kyiv.
“We won’t be able to leave now,” said Panmana Anandhu of Sumy State University. Mr. Anandhu, who hails from Kerala, said many Indians are in Kharkiv and Odesa, which were bombed by Russian forces on Thursday morning. Mr. Anandhu said his university had called upon students to volunteer to donate blood to hospitals.
The alarming situation has prompted Indian students to seek shelter in underground metro stations in Ukraine’s major cities. Officials have indicated that they have activated missions in four neighbouring countries for evacuation through Ukraine’s land borders. The embassies will also receive more staff from Delhi to deal with the efforts.
A large number of Indian students, however, managed to reach the Indian Embassy in Kyiv on Thursday morning and sought refuge. Sources said that some of them found accommodation in the mission premises while the rest were sent to safe residences nearby.
Indian Ambassador to Ukraine, Partha Satpathy, reassured the students in a video message, and urged for them to stay put with friends and in their academic residences. The Indian mission issued multiple advisories as Russian forces advanced across Ukrainie and Indian nationals not to leave their “homes unless necessary”.
“For those students who are stranded without a place of stay in Kyiv, Mission is in touch with establishments to put them up. We are aware that certain places are hearing air sirens/warnings. In case you are faced with such a situation, Google maps has a list of nearby bomb shelters, many of which are located in underground metros,” stated the third advisory to all Indian nationals in Ukraine.