February 3, 2020 / 11:30 AM / 14 days ago

UPDATE 4-Medical flights start from Yemen's Sanaa in diplomatic breakthrough

(Adds United Nations statement, paragraph)

DUBAI, Feb 3 (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.

Fifteen-year-old Abdallah Abed was one of 16 patients 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.”

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.

The flights took two years of negotiations to arrange, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator in Yemen Lise Grande said from Sanaa airport. The airport has been closed to civilian flights since 2015 although U.N. planes have been permitted to land there.

Thousands need care, Grande said. “This is the first flight, there will be more,” she said, adding that the real solution is to end the war.

Supervised by the U.N. and the WHO, flights from Sanaa will go to Amman and Cairo. The U.N. thanked Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia for their efforts, adding that “the collaboration and commitment of both the Government of Yemen and Sanaa authorities made this operation possible”.

WHO said most of the patients were women and children with cancer and brain tumours, 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 organisation the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). “There is no justification for punishing very sick civilians by blocking them from accessing medical treatment.”

Although the Houthis control Sanaa airport, access is restricted by the coalition, which controls the air space.

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

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 on decreasing hostilities.

U.N. Yemen Envoy Martin Griffiths held last-minute talks with Houthi authorities on Sunday on the medical evacuation plans, a diplomatic source said.

A second flight will take the rest of the first batch of 30 patients to Amman, and more flights will follow, a joint statement by Griffiths, Grande and a WHO representative said.

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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