Coalition requests UN control of Sanaa airport to enable relief flights

Air traffic to Yemen's rebel-held capital was blocked last year over fears of arms smuggling

A general view taken in October 25, 2016 shows Sanaa International Airport in the Yemeni capital.
Sanaa international airport was shut when the Saudi-led coalition resumed air strikes on August 9 around the city after the last round of peace talks in Kuwait collapsed. It reopened days later, but only for humanitarian flights which have to notify the coalition in advance.

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The Saudi-led coalition supporting Yemen's government has asked the United Nations to take control of the country's main airport in the rebel-held capital to enable the resumption of flights bringing in much needed relief supplies.

The coalition request followed a plea issued by 15 aid groups on Wednesday, the first anniversary of the coalition's closure of Sanaa international airport to prevent smuggling of weapons to rebel forces.

In a statement issued on Thursday, coalition spokesman Col Turki Al Maliki said the coalition wanted the United Nations to contribute to the resumption flights from and to Sanaa by managing airport security to allay the Yemeni government's concerns.

"Should airport management and security be conducted properly, ensuring the safety of all inbound flights and stopping arms smuggling, Joint Forces Command is prepared to restore normal flight activity," said Col Al Maliki.

The UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, Jamie McGoldrick, has said the reopening of Sanaa airport "is essential to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni population".

The closure of the airport has also prevented Yemenis from leaving the country for medical urgent treatment, the Norwegian Refugee Council aid group said.


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Col Al Maliki said the coalition's "precautionary measures should not be stigmatised as cause of suffering for Yemeni people", saying it had "assigned airports in liberated and safe cities as alternatives at the request of the Yemeni government".

Yemen is facing one of the world's worst humanitarian crises as a result of the civil war, with widespread hunger and disease adding to deaths from the fighting, which the UN estimates at 10,000 over two years. The country is in the grip of a cholera epidemic that has killed nearly 2,000 people, with more than half a million affected.

The conflict began with the seizure of the capital by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in September 2014. The Saudi-led coalition intervened in March the following year, helping government forces to push back the rebels and allied renegade military units loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

While the government has regained control over most of southern Yemen, the capital and large areas of the north remain in rebels hands.