First UN medical flight takes Yemeni patients out of Sanaa

The first United Nations medical flight from Yemen left the Houthi-held capital of Sanaa on Monday, with seven patients and their families bound for Jordan where they will receive treatment.

“There will be patients who are suffering from conditions and diseases that can’t be treated here in Yemen. They will be taken to Jordan,” UN resident coordinator for Yemen Lise Grande told reporters.

Flights to airlift patients from the Houthi-held Sanaa airport for treatment abroad began on Monday at 2:30 p.m. local time after weeks of discussions, diplomatic sources close to the matter told Arab News.

The UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths arrived in the capital on Sunday to facilitate the humanitarian “medical air bridge”, Houthi-run Al-Masirah TV reported.

Patients will be airlifted by World Health Organization (WHO) chartered flights, in cooperation with the Saudi-led Arab coalition, from Sanaa airport and taken to hospitals in Cairo and Amman.

These mercy flights come as part of “humanitarian relief efforts, and in support of the brethren Yemeni people to alleviate suffering” of patients with difficult illnesses, coalition spokesperson Colonel Turki Al-Maliki said last week.

“This humane step aims to alleviate suffering of citizens who cannot afford the hardship of travel by land to the Republic’s other ports, after the Houthis refused the government’s repeated initiative to operate Sanaa airport for domestic flights,” Yemen’s foreign ministry said in a release carried by the Riyadh-based Saba.

The Houthi-appointed medical bridge committee, Mutahar Derweesh, said that WHO had initially agreed to transport 30 patients in the first flight out of the 32,000 people that were registered on the medical evacuation lists. However, a statement released on Sunday by the Houthis stated that the number of patients that would be transported was decreased to seven.

“I think it’s an important step, especially that it has been in discussion for a while now. I just hope it will not be abused by the Houthis,” Baraa Shiban, consultant to the Yemeni embassy in London told Arab News.

Shiban said that although this showed hope for future progress in resolving the conflict, he remained skeptical.

“I hardly see an end in sight, especially with the latest escalation,” he said.

Last week saw a drastic escalation in fighting between the warring sides in Yemen, killing and wounding hundreds of people.

The sudden spike in violence across long-stalemated front lines threatened to exacerbate the five-year conflict and complicate indirect peace talks.

Ibrahim Jalal, a Yemeni non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, also praised the decision as an “important humanitarian step to alleviate the suffering of Yemeni civilians.”

“The UN, in cooperation with humanitarian organisations and relevant stakeholders, should seek to increase the frequency of flights and seats allocated to meet basic medical demands,” he said.

There has been a blockade in place on commercial navigation to and from Sanaa airport since early August 2016, allowing only for UN and humanitarian groups’ flights.

The only commercially operated airports in Yemen are in the south in the interim-capital Aden and Seyoun in Hadramout, where the airports provide limited flights abroad.

“This reactivation is a step in the right direction and, if utilised well, could be one of the significant confidences building measures before the resumption of comprehensive peace talks,” Jalal said.

Last month, the UN envoy resumed a new round of regional talks to revive stalled peace talks between the Yemeni government and the Houthi militias. He discussed confidence-building measures to implement the Stockholm Agreement, signed in December 2018.

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