CAIRO (AP) — Flights transporting Yemeni medical patients from rebel-held areas continued Saturday when a second plane carrying 24 patients took off from Sanaa bound for Jordan’s capital, the UN health agency said.
The UN flights, which began Feb. 3, are seen as a humanitarian breakthrough in the more than five-year-old conflict in the Arab world’s poorest country. The conflict began with the 2014 takeover of the capital Sanaa by the rebel Huthis, who control much of the country’s north.
A Saudi-led military coalition allied with Yemen’s internationally recognized government has been fighting the Iran-backed Huthis since 2015. The US-backed coalition closed the airspace and prevented any flights from leaving Sanaa, starting in August 2016.
The Associated Press reported in November that Saudi Arabia and the Huthis are holding indirect, behind-the-scenes talks to end the war mediated by Oman, quoting officials from both sides.
The talks are focused on interim agreements, such as re-opening Yemen’s main international airport in Sanaa, which was shut down by the Saudi-led coalition in 2016.
There has been no announced explanation for the medical flights but they could be a result of talks between Saudi Arabia and the Huthis. The first such flight since the air blockade carrying eight patients and their families left Sanaa on Feb. 3.
Saturday’s flight was originally scheduled to depart Sanaa the previous day. However it did not take off “for technical reasons,” the World Health Organization said Friday, without giving details.
Twenty-four patients and their family members “have departed on the second flight today from Sanaa to Amman to receive the treatment,” the WHO tweeted.
Among those who left Sanaa on Saturday was 30-year-old cancer patient Entisar. WHO said the cancer had spread all over her body.
“The physical & psychological pain is unbearable; all I want is to feel better,” she was quoted as saying by the UN agency. Her last name was not given.
Welcoming the arrival of the second flight to Jordan’s capital, Amman, UN envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths said the two flights transported patients to “receive life-saving medical care currently unavailable in Yemen.”
The Huthi rebels criticized the UN for the delay of the second flight and for the small number of patients airlifted out of Sanaa. The rebel-run health ministry has said that 32,000 people are in need of urgent medical and surgical intervention, such as kidney transplants and heart surgeries.
The grinding war in Yemen has killed more than 10,000 people and created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, leaving millions suffering from food and medical care shortages and pushing the country to the brink of famine.