SANAA (AFP) – Yemeni children in critical need of medical care were evacuated on Monday from the rebel-held capital Sanaa, in what the United Nations (UN) hopes will be the first of many “mercy flights”.
Seven young patients and their relatives flew out of Sanaa airport, which a Saudi-led coalition supporting the embattled Yemeni government has kept closed to commercial flights since 2016.
The UN-marked plane later landed in the Jordanian capital Amman, where passengers were placed in buses which immediately ferried them to hospitals, an AFP photographer said.
“This is the first of what we hope will be a number of flights in the medical air bridge,” UN Resident Coordinator for Yemen Lise Grande told AFP before the plane’s departure.
She said more patients and their families would travel to Jordan and Egypt in coming days, as part of an evacuation programme which took months to negotiate.
“It’s crucially important that this first flight has gone,” Grande said.
Yemen’s internationally-recognised government has been fighting Huthi rebels since they seized control of the capital in 2014.
Last November, the Saudi-led coalition – which intervened on the government’s side in 2015 and controls Yemen’s airspace – said patients needing medical care would be allowed to fly out of Sanaa. The move was a confidence-building measure aimed at ending the five-year war, which has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions in what the UN said is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The launch of the “air bridge” could be a step towards fully reopening Sanaa airport, a key demand of the Huthis and one issue being pursued in UN-led mediation.
British charity Save the Children hailed the evacuation programme as a “vital lifeline” for thousands of children needing medical care.
It urged “all stakeholders to open Sanaa airport to commercial flights as well, so that medicines, medical equipment and other goods can come into the north of the country by air”.
Grande said the children on the plane were suffering from serious conditions including cancer and kidney failure.
“Thousands of patients haven’t received the treatment they need because of the blockade.”