Nepal: Twelve arrested for smuggling Nepalis into Russian army

File photo of Russian tank in Kyiv
Image caption,Twelve Nepalis have been arrested on suspicions of helping to recruit young Nepalis into Russia’s army

By Rama Parajuli & Kelly Ng

in Kathmandu and Singapore

The arrests of a dozen people in Nepal accused of smuggling young men into Russia’s army has shed a spotlight on fighters from the poor Asian country.

Earlier this week, Nepal asked Russia to return Nepali mercenaries after six of them died in fighting in Ukraine.

The smugglers allegedly charged each man up to $9,000 to take them in on tourist visas, Kathmandu police said.

It’s unknown how many Nepalis serve in Russia’s army, but it’s estimated to be at least hundreds.

Nepal’s ambassador to Russia has said around 150-200 Nepali nationals have been fighting for Russia – but there are also reports from locals of scores of people signing up every week for money and visa residency reasons.

The BBC understands that Nepalis are still flying to Russia to join the army. Several have been injured from fighting in the war and are getting treatment in Russian hospitals.

Nepal is one of the poorest nations in the world, with about 40% of the population living below the poverty line according to the World Bank.

It largely prohibits its citizens from joining foreign armies – although there are exemptions for its Gurkha soldiers to join the Indian and British armies – but this ban is also hard to enforce.

Russia has been actively seeking to boost the number of its troops as its war with Ukraine grinds on. It has reportedly recruited mercenaries from countries like Georgia, Syria and Libya.

There was “no proof” that Russia was directly involved in the recruitment of Nepali mercenaries, Nepali police told media on Thursday.

But the Himalayan nation has officially written to Moscow to stop the use of Nepali soldiers. It has also summoned the Russian ambassador in Nepal to reiterate Kathmandu’s position.

Police Supt Kumud Dhungel said authorities had found that some “aspiring Nepalis” were offered “letters from people Russia [inviting them] to visit”.

The police suspect that these brokers would arrange for the mercenaries to travel to Russia via India or Dubai “to get away with the questioning in Nepal airport”, he said. He added that they have sought help from Indian authorities in their investigation.

On Monday, Nepal asked for the bodies of six mercenaries killed in recent fighting to be sent back to Nepal.

But the country’s ambassador to Russia, Milan Raj Tuladhar, told the BBC “there is no progress in this regard as of now”.

The sister of one of the victims told the BBC she has been asking Nepali authorities for compensation and help in bringing her brother’s body back.

“The authorities have told me that the bodies have been buried by the Russian military already. They should help us by negotiating with the Russian authorities,” said the woman, who did not want to be named.

In June this year, the BBC reported that many young Nepalis had gone to Russia on student and work visas, and then joined the Russian army to earn some money – with the eventual aim of obtaining Russian citizenship.

“Everyone knows about the economy of Nepal. What will we do if we go back there?” one of the mercenaries said in a video on TikTok.

Citing an unnamed government spokesperson, Ukrainian news outlet the Kyiv Post reported this week that there were also an unknown number of Nepalis fighting with Ukrainian forces.

It’s unclear if the Nepali mercenaries abroad are sending money home to families.

But remittances are key to many families in rural Nepal. According to the International Labour Organization, there are about 3.5 million Nepalis working abroad, mostly in the Middle East, South East Asia and India.

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