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Russia pledges to discharge Indians fighting for Moscow in Ukraine, New Delhi says

By Helen Regan, CNN

(CNN) — Russia has promised to discharge Indian nationals who were “misled” into joining its army to fight in Ukraine, India’s foreign secretary said Tuesday.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi “strongly raised the issue of early discharge” to Russian President Vladimir Putin during his two-day trip to Moscow this week, stressing the need to bring all Indians home “as early as possible,” Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra told reporters in a news briefing.

“The Russian side promised the early discharge of all Indian nationals from the service of the Russian army,” he said.

Moscow has not commented on the agreement, but New Delhi has been pushing for the release of its nationals from the Russian army for months, telling CNN in April that it was a “top priority.” The Indian Ministry of External Affairs previously told CNN it has been in continuous contact with Russian authorities to secure their release.

By some estimates, Russia has been sending thousands of foreign men to fight in Ukraine since Putin ordered the full-scale invasion of its southwestern neighbor in February 2022.

Many of them are young men from South Asia, enticed by the prospect of steady employment and higher salaries in Russia. In Nepal, prominent opposition lawmaker and former foreign minister Bimala Rai Paudyal told parliament earlier this year that between 14,000 and 15,000 Nepalis were fighting on the front lines, citing testimony from men returning from Ukraine.

The Russian government last year announced a lucrative package for foreign fighters to join the country’s military, including a monthly salary of at least $2,000 and a fast track to Russian citizenship – but the Kremlin has not said how many foreigners it has recruited under the plan.

In early March, India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) said it had busted major human trafficking networks that were duping men into Russian military jobs, with 35 such cases identified.

“The trafficked Indian Nationals were trained in combat roles and deployed at front bases in Russia-Ukraine War Zone against their wishes,” the CBI statement said.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Kwatra said he does know the precise number of Indians recruited to fight for Russia in Ukraine, but anticipates it is between 35 and 50 people.

Of those, 10 Indian nationals have already returned to India, he said.

“Now, the two sides will work on it and see how expeditiously we can get them back into the country,” Kwatra said.

India has no law preventing its citizens from serving in a foreign state’s military.

One family from the southern Indian city of Hyderabad recently told CNN they spent two months trying to find out what happened to their brother after he traveled to Russia on the promise of job opportunities.

Imran Mohammad said an employment agency had enticed his brother Asfan Mohammed with an offer for helper and security jobs in the Russian army, saying he could get a Russian passport and national card within a year.

Instead, Asfan was sent to the battlefield in Ukraine and was killed in combat.

“These brokers duped the boys and put their lives in danger,” Imran said, referring to Asfan and other Indians sent to war.

In neighboring Nepal, lawmakers have called on the Russian authorities to provide figures for its nationals fighting in Ukraine.

Several returned Nepali fighters who spoke with CNN earlier this year blamed Russia for using them as cannon fodder in the war.

“It’s the Nepalis and other foreign fighters that are actually fighting in the front of war zones. The Russians position themselves a few hundred meters back as support,” said Suman Tamang, after he returned from Russia.

The Nepalis who fought for Russia said they had received only brief training before being sent into combat.

Ramchandra Khadka, who returned to Nepal after suffering injuries in Ukraine, told CNN that after only two weeks of training, he was sent to the front lines in Bakhmut – a town in eastern Ukraine that saw some of the heaviest fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces – with a gun and a basic kit.

“I didn’t join the Russian military for pleasure. I didn’t have any job opportunities in Nepal. But in hindsight, it wasn’t the right decision,” Khadka said. “We didn’t realize we would be sent to the front lines that quickly and how horrible the situation would be.”

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CNN’s Brad Lendon, Vedika Sud, Sugam Pokharel, Matthew Chance, Mihir Melwani, and journalist Nishant Khanal contributed reporting.

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