UN aircraft to evacuate wounded Yemen rebels ahead of peace talks
Flying injured Houthi fighters to Omani capital a key step in getting on with stalled negotiations as war famine looms
Wounded Yemeni rebels arrived at Sanaa airport to be flown to Oman for treatment in a “confidence-building” measure on Monday as the UN envoy returned to push ahead with planned peace talks.
The evacuation on a UN chartered plane is a key step in kick-starting stalled talks as world powers press for an end to the four-year conflict that has pushed Yemen to the brink of famine.
Wounded Houthi rebels were taken by ambulances across the capital on Monday — controlled by the Iran-backed insurgents since 2014 — to the long-defunct Sanaa International Airport.
In the airport departure hall, other wounded rebels, some in suits and wheelchairs, lined up awaiting evacuation to Muscat.
A security official at Sanaa airport told AFP the rebels began on Monday night to board the private, UN-supervised flight.
Coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki said the UN chartered flight would evacuate 50 wounded combatants, 50 escorts and a team of Yemeni and UN doctors to the Omani capital.
The fate of wounded rebels had been a stumbling block to the start of a previous round of aborted peace talks in Geneva in September.
The rebels say they will attend talks in Sweden if they are guaranteed safe passage.
The UN is trying to persuade Houthi insurgents and the Saudi-backed government to sit down at the negotiating table this December.
UN envoy in Sanaa
UN envoy Martin Griffiths landed in Sanaa on Monday for talks with the rebels.
A UN source said the reopening of Sanaa International Airport, shut for more than three years after air raids by the Saudi-led coalition, was a priority for planned peace talks.
The Houthis said at the weekend that the airport could now meet the requirements of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to “receive civilian flights”. The ICAO has not released a statement on Sanaa airport.
A UN panel of experts said this year the “effective closure” of Sanaa airport since 2015, when the Saudi-led alliance intervened in the Yemen war, was a violation of international humanitarian law.
Proposed UN-brokered peace talks have been backed by the rebels and the government and were expected to take place in Sweden this week.
UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, however, has played down the early December schedule and said he hoped talks would start “this year”.
The opposing sides cautiously reiterated their willingness to attend negotiations.
Yemen’s information minister, Moammer al-Eryani, said the government had agreed to the talks in Sweden as a first step towards “facilitating negotiations” and to end “all excuses invoked by the coupists (rebels) to evade finding peace”.
Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree said the rebels were ready to hold talks “starting with a ceasefire” announced by the rival coalition at a press conference broadcast on the insurgents’ Al-Masirah television.
Iran also offered support on Monday, saying it was ready to co-operate with the international community to resolve the crisis.
Previous talks planned for September in Geneva failed to get under way as the Houthi delegation did not leave Sanaa, saying the UN could not guarantee their safe return.
UN aid chief Mark Lowcock warned last week that Yemen was “on the brink of a major catastrophe”.