Pak Yemen envoy jilts countrymen, flees home

KARACHI: Pakistan’s ambassador to Yemen, Dr Irfan Yousuf Shami, has practically jumped his sinking ship as captain, by leaving Yemen to return to Pakistan, abandoning several hundred of his countrymen in the war-ravaged country. Between 2,000 and 2,500 Pakistanis are estimated to still reside in different cities of Yemen. A Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flight brought home 503 stranded passengers on Sunday, 29 March, but with the exit of the envoy, and the Pakistan Embassy in Sana’s closed, other Pakistanis have been left high and dry in Yemen. Meanwhile a high-level delegation of the government of Pakistan has left for Riyadh on Tuesday, 31 March for talks with the Saudi leadership about Pakistan’s role in the conflict in Yemen. 

Reports say, Pakistani expats in Yemen are in a state of confusion about their evacuation without a diplomatic mission to reach out to. Things have become complicated for Pakistanis in Yemen after the Nawaz Sharif government announced its support for Saudi Arabia’s armed assault on the Houthi rebels, leading a rebellion there, leading to a full-blown war in Yemen. 

“The Houthi rebels used to leave Pakistanis alone until the Pakistani government announced its support for the Saudi military offensive,” said Syed Arsalan, whose brother, sister-in-law and niece lived in the capital city of Sana’a. “After the rebels learnt of Pakistan’s support to Saudi Arabia, they started looting the homes of Pakistanis in retaliation.”

Imran Victor, who returned from Sana’a six months ago but whose wife and brother-in-law still live there, supported Arsalan’s claim. “The rebels’ attitude towards Pakistanis changed after our government announced its backing for the Saudi operation,” he said.

Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokesperson Tasnim Aslam had said more special flights would be sent to speed up the evacuation process and that Pakistan was also coordinating with the Chinese authorities to bring back Chinese nationals by sea. Pakistan’s Defence Minister Khawaja Asif had phoned his Saudi counterpart to ensure early return of Pakistanis still stranded in Yemen. An official statement said the Saudi defence minister assured Asif that evacuation of the stranded Pakistanis would be carried out as if they were Saudi citizens. “The Saudi government is in contact with the Pakistani embassy in Riyadh,” the defence ministry said. 

However, with the surprise exit of the Pakistani ambassador the situation has been plunged into chaos. 

Speaking from Aden by telephone, a Pakistani expat Tauqeer Ahmed said that with the return of the embassy staff, the Pakistani community in Yemen is voluntarily helping coordinate amongst their own people.

“Obviously, we are facing a lot of difficulty. If a government official was here, things would have been more organised and more resources would have been employed to bring people together. Right now, volunteers are doing the work of the officials.”

Express Tribune reports that the Pakistani Ambassador to Yemen and his embassy staff, were brought back by a special PIA flight late on Sunday. When reporters phoned the official- Dr Irfan Yousuf Shami, he hung up and failed to respond.

Meanwhile, the FO spokesperson said they had coordinators and focal points in Yemen, and their crisis management cell in Islamabad was taking care of the coordination.

But her statement offered little solace to those stranded in the war-torn country and their families. People like Talha, whose sister Romana Hafeez along with her four children and paralysed husband, are stranded in Sana’a, are willing to take any risk to save their loved ones.

“The embassy staff should have stayed there till everyone came back. I am willing to go and save people there as I have worked in conflict-hit areas,” she said.

The return of the embassy staff has also increased problems for those Pakistanis incarcerated in Yemen.

“If the prisoners are released before completing jail time, they are handed over to the embassy. But now, who will receive them? Who will verify them and issue travel documents to them?” said activist Ansar Burney. According to him, there are 20 Pakistani prisoners in two jails of Sana’a, including 11 fishermen.

Some expats whose passports are in the possession of their employers are also facing problems due to the closure of the Pakistani embassy in Yemen. If the embassy was functioning, it could have issued them papers which would have brought them back home, Burney said.

Meanwhile, at a high level meeting Islamabad, PM Nawaz Sharif was briefed on the current situation in Yemen and the status of the remaining Pakistani expats. The meeting also included Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar and Advisor to PM on National Security Sartaj Aziz. The PM reportedly assured that “We will evacuate stranded Pakistanis from the war-torn country as soon as possible.”

While Pakistan has in principle decided to safeguard the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Saudi Arabia, it is yet to formally announce a decision to participate in the joint military strike being led by the Kingdom against the Iran-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen. 

Radio Pakistan reports that a high level Pakistani delegation left for Riyadh on Tuesday, 31 March, to discuss matters related with this issue with Saudi leadership in the wake of current crisis in the Middle East. Pakistan is expected to declare its position and role in the conflict after this meeting.

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