Yemen: UN charters first medical flight out of Sanaa airport since 2015

Medical assistance for Yemenis has been hampered by a lack of access due to a five-year war

A Yemeni soldier stands guard at Sanaa Airport during arrival of Houthi prisoners after being released by the Saudi-led coalition in the airport of Sanaa, Yemen, Thursday, Nov. 28, 2019. The International Committee of the Red Cross says over a hundred rebel prisoners released by the Saudi-led coalition have returned to Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen, a step toward a long-anticipated prisoner swap between the warring parties. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)
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The United Nations chartered the first medical flight out of Yemen's rebel-held capital on Monday to transfer critically ill patients to Jordan for immediate treatment, UN sources told The National.

Houthi rebels have controlled Sanaa's airport since they overran the capital in 2014. A Saudi-led coalition intervened, on behalf of the internationally recognised government, in the conflict in March 2015, in an effort to roll back rebel gains.

The World Health Organisation and the UN will oversee three flights for Yemeni civilians this week. They will go to either Amman in Jordan and Cairo in Egypt. The first flight on Monday took six patients to the Jordanian capital.

"A total of 30 patients, travelling with medical companions, will receive the treatment they need abroad through the medical air bridge operation, part of the UN’s ongoing humanitarian assistance in Yemen, including providing support to the healthcare system," the WHO said in a statement.

The majority of the patients are women and children "who suffer from conditions such as aggressive forms of cancer and brain tumors, or who need organ transplants and reconstructive surgeries," the agency said.

"The flights offer them a lifeline to receive the treatment they need to survive," the statement said.

The United Nation's special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, arrived in Sanaa on Sunday, to supervise the operation.

"Today was the maiden voyage of the medical air bridge operation that brought a number of patients out of an initial group of 30 along with their respective travel companions from Sanaa to Amman. The remaining of the first group of 30 patients will travel in a second flight while more patients will follow on subsequent flights," a statement from the UN envoy's office said.

The statement praised government official and rebels for making the operation possible.

Coalition spokesperson Colonel Turki Al Maliki said last week that "the medical bridge is part of humanitarian efforts to help alleviate the suffering of Yemeni people, especially those with critical illnesses”.

The closure of Sanaa airport has hindered the delivery of humanitarian aid and barred thousands of sick Yemenis from travelling abroad for urgent care.

Yemen’s Foreign Ministry described the move as a “way to alleviate the suffering of citizens unable to endure the hardship of travelling by road to other airports".

Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, praised the development.

“Glimmer of hope in Yemen today: First medical flight allowed out of Sanaa for patients needing medical care. Too many died waiting. Should lead to full reopening for all civilian flights,” Mr Egeland said on Twitter.

Re-opening the airport has been a key aim of UN-led peace talks seen as part of confidence building measures aimed at re-launching political talks to end the conflict.

The agreement to facilitate medical flights were the result of months of negotiations and the project had received an "extraordinary" amount of diplomatic support, Mr Griffiths said in an address to the Security Council last month.

The international body has been pushing to resume political negotiations to end the war.