India on Sunday evacuated 688 more nationals from war-hit Ukraine on three Air India flights and said it was in touch with the other countries in that region to ensure the return of all its stranded citizens as concerns mounted over their safety.
Approximately 13,000 Indians are in Ukraine as of now, Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia, who received the evacuees at the Delhi airport this morning, said.
Around a thousand Indians have already been flown out of Romania and Hungary and another 1,000 have been evacuated from Ukraine through the land routes, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla told a media briefing.
He said that locations of the Indian citizens are being shared with Ukraine and Russia for ensuring their protection and Indians who are near the borders with Hungary, Romania and Slovakia are being guided towards the respective border points in phases. The International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) has also been urged to escort the Indians safely out of the country.
Scenes of tearful reunion were seen at the Delhi airport after two Air India flights from Romanian capital Bucharest and one from Hungarian capital Budapest arrived with 688 Indian nationals on Sunday.
IndiGo also said it will operate two flights to Budapest via Istanbul on Monday and Tuesday from Delhi to bring back Indians.
The first evacuation flight from Bucharest with 219 people on board had landed in Mumbai a day earlier under Operation Ganga and many of the returnees reached their home states.
"Since we were evacuated quickly, we escaped from the impact (of war), but a large number of students are stuck on the eastern side of Ukraine," Selvapriya, a student from Tamil Nadu who is studying in an institution in western Ukraine, said on her return.
Belonging to Pudukottai district, Selvapriya said several students from the western region have crossed the Romanian border and that they had to walk for about 5-8 kilometers to get out of Ukraine.
A Vadodara-based man, whose daughter managed to come back, said the family was desolate ever since they got the news of the war in Ukraine.
"We can smile now that our daughter is here," he said.
However, it continues to be a harrowing wait for hundreds of families whose kin are still not back from Ukraine. Videos shared on social media showed Malayali students huddled in bunkers or underground metro stations in various parts of eastern Ukraine in below-freezing temperatures, crying out for help.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on Sunday wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking his immediate intervention.
In the letter, he said some of the Indians have taken refuge in bunkers in eastern cities like Kyiv, Kharkiv and Sumi and were facing food and water shortage.
Chandigarh-based Dinesh Dogra, whose daughter Simran, too is stuck in Kharkiv, said she and her friends take shelter in bunkers when sirens buzz outside.
We pray when there are air raid sirens and shelling, Simran told the media over a video call.
We are worried about her safety and the well-being of other children with her. These days we are not able to sleep, Dogra said.
The Ministry of External affairs, meanwhile, said a dedicated Twitter handle @opganga has been set up to assist in the evacuation of Indians from Ukraine.
Shringla said he held separate meetings with the ambassadors of Ukraine and Russia and shared with them the locations of the Indian citizens in Ukraine for ensuring their protection.
The foreign secretary said though the border crossings to Hungary and Romania are functioning, the exit point to Poland has been clogged with lakhs of Ukrainians and foreign nationals trying to leave the strife-torn country through it.
India is using the land routes to evacuate its citizens as Ukraine has closed its airspace for civilian aircraft following the Russian attack.
Shringla said that Indians who are near the borders with Hungary, Romania and Slovakia are being guided towards the respective border points in phases.
"We are aware of a number of Indian citizens, particularly students, who continue to be in cities in the east and south-east of Ukraine.
"'Unfortunately, these areas are live conflict areas and it is generally deemed unsafe for people to move around freely. We will try to find suitable evacuation modalities for them," he said.
He said approximately 2,000 Indian citizens were in Kyiv and many of them have begun to move to the western part of the country.
Shringla said the Indian embassy in Ukraine suggested that those who are located in the eastern areas including Kyiv should start moving westwards to avoid the areas of increasing conflict and that they should come near the border points.
"We have also contacted the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva. Our Permanent Representative in Geneva has spoken to the President of the ICRC," he said.
"The ICRC is commencing its operation in Ukraine. We have told them to please make sure that as and when they start their operation, they should be cognisant of the needs of our citizens and wherever possible escort them out," he added.
Early this morning, Scindia welcomed the evacuees of the AI1942 flight at the Delhi airport by handing out roses to them.
Scindia told reporters at the airport terminal that approximately 13,000 Indians are stranded in Ukraine as of now.
"You know it is an extremely sensitive situation there (Ukraine). In this situation, we are talking with each Indian national, including students, through telecommunications," he said.
"We will bring them back as soon as possible," he said.
Addressing the returnees, Scindia said, "I know you all have been through a very, very difficult time, a very, very trying time. But know this that the PM is with you at every step, the Indian government is with you at every step, and 130 crore Indians are with you at every step."
The Ukrainian airspace has been closed for civil aircraft operations since February 24 morning when the Russian military offensive began. Therefore, the Indian evacuation flights are operating out of Bucharest and Budapest.
Scindia said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in touch with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and talks are being held so that everyone is brought home safely.
The minister said talks are also on with the Russian government, and the Indian government will breathe easy only after every stranded Indian is evacuated from Ukraine.
"So, please pass on this message to all your friends and all your colleagues that we are with them and we will guarantee their safe passage back," Scindia said.
The Indian Embassy in Ukraine said on Sunday that whenever curfew is lifted and people are moving around in a neighbourhood, Indian nationals are advised to use nearby railway stations to proceed towards western parts of the country.
The western parts of the country are relatively conflict-free as of now.
The transportation mode of Railways is operational and safer Ukrainian Railways is also operating special trains for evacuation of people free of charge on a first-come-first-serve basis at the railway station, the Indian Embassy in Ukraine noted.
It said Indians should travel in groups and carry only essentials in a rucksack or a bag.