February 3, 2020 / 8:46 AM / 16 days ago

Medical flights start from Yemen's Sanaa in diplomatic breakthrough

DUBAI (Reuters) - Flights carrying patients needing urgent medical attention began from the Yemeni capital Sanaa on Monday, the World Health Organization (WHO) said, a long-sought confidence-building measure in diplomatic efforts to end the five-year war.

A girl looks from behind a door glass before her boarding on a United Nations plane which will carry her and other patients to Amman, Jordan in the first flight of a medical air bridge from Sanaa airport in Sanaa, Yemen February 3, 2020. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Fifteen-year-old Abdallah Abed was one of 16 patients to be flown out on the first flight to Amman.

“I have kidney failure and I need a transplant,” he said. “God willing we travel today to Jordan for treatment.”

The flights took two years of negotiations to set up, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Yemen Lise Grande said from Sanaa airport, which has been closed to civilian flights since 2015.

“There are thousands of patients who need this care. This is the first flight, there will be more,” she said, adding that the real solution is to end the war.

Supervised by the United Nations and World Health Organization, flights from Sanaa will go to Amman and Cairo. WHO said the majority of the patients are women and children suffering cancer and brain tumors, or needing organ transplants and reconstructive surgeries.

“It is hoped these flights will enable the opening of regular medical ‘bridge’ flights for sick patients,” said aid organization the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). “There is no justification for punishing very sick civilians by blocking them from accessing medical treatment.”

Yemen has been mired in conflict since the Iran-aligned Houthis ousted the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi from Sanaa in late 2014. A Saudi-led military coalition intervened in 2015 to try to restore Hadi.

Although the Houthis control Sanaa airport, access is restricted by the coalition, which controls the air space. The airport has been closed to civilian flights since 2015 although U.N. planes have been permitted to land there.

Re-opening the airport has been a major aim of U.N.-led peace talks and a key demand of the Houthi administration.

The medical flights were the result of months of negotiations and the project had received an “extraordinary” amount of diplomatic support, U.N. Yemen Envoy Martin Griffiths said in an address to the Security Council last month.

The United Nations has been trying to re-launch political negotiations to end the war. Separately, Riyadh has been holding informal talks with the Houthis since late September about de-escalation.

Griffiths held last-minute talks with Houthi authorities on Sunday regarding the medical evacuation plans, a diplomatic source said, adding that about 60 patients and relatives are expected to leave on flights this week.

Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, head of the Houthis’ Supreme Revolutionary Committee, said 32,000 people are registered on medical evacuation lists.

Reporting by Lisa Barrington and the Reuters team in Yemen, Editing by Peter Graff, Ed Osmond and Grant McCool

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