Fifty wounded Houthi rebels will be evacuated from the Yemeni capital for medical treatment Monday, December 3, a Saudi-led military coalition said, as the United Nations envoy flew to Sana’a ahead of planned peace talks in Sweden.
The evacuation on a U.N. chartered plane marks a key step in kickstarting stalled negotiations as world powers press for an end to the brutal four-year conflict that has pushed Yemen to the brink of famine.
The fate of wounded rebels had been a stumbling block to the start of a previous round of aborted peace talks in September. The U.N. is trying to persuade the warring sides to sit down at the negotiating table this month.
Coalition spokesperson Turki al-Maliki said a U.N. chartered flight would evacuate 50 wounded combatants, accompanied by three Yemeni doctors and a U.N. doctor, from Sana’a to the Omani capital, in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.
Wounded militants were transported across the capital, controlled by Yemen’s Iran-backed Huthi rebels since 2014, in ambulances as they made their way to the long-defunct Sana’a International Airport on Monday.
Inside the airport departure hall, other wounded rebels – some in suits and wheelchairs – lined up awaiting their evacuation to Muscat.
U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths was expected to hold talks with the Houthis in Sana’a on Monday, a U.N. source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
His visit comes as pressure mounts to reopen the rebel-held airport, which has been shut for more than three years following air raids by the Saudi-led alliance.
The coalition agreed to facilitate the medical evacuations at Griffiths’s request for “humanitarian reasons” and as a “confidence building” measure, the spokesperson said.
There was no immediate reaction from the Houthis or the United Nations.
The U.N. source said the reopening of Sana’a International Airport was a priority at the planned peace talks.
A U.N. panel of experts this year said the “effective closure” of Sanaa airport since 2015, when the Saudi-led alliance intervened in the Yemen war, constituted a violation of international humanitarian law.
The Houthis had announced at the weekend that the airport could now meet the requirements of the International Civil Aviation Organization to “receive civilian flights.”
The ICAO has not released a statement on Sana’a airport.
Yemen’s information minister, Moammer al-Eryani, said the government had agreed to the Sweden talks as a first step towards “facilitating negotiations” and to end “all excuses invoked by the coupists [rebels] to evade finding peace.”
The proposed U.N.-brokered peace talks have been backed by both the Houthis and the Saudi-led government and were expected to take place in Sweden this week.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, however, has played down the early December schedule and said he hoped talks would start “this year.”
The rebels have said they will attend the talks if they are guaranteed safe passage.
Previous talks planned for September in Geneva failed to get under way as the Houthi delegation never left Sana’a, saying the United Nations could not guarantee their safe return.
The rebels also accused the world body of failing to secure the evacuation of wounded rebels to Oman, a relatively neutral party in the Yemen war.
Talks initially broke down in 2016, when 108 days of negotiations in Kuwait failed to yield a deal and left rebel delegates stranded in Oman for three months.
U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock warned last week that Yemen was “on the brink of a major catastrophe,” following a trip to the war-wracked country.
His comments came after renewed deadly clashes between Houthi rebels and pro-government forces in the port city of Hodeidah, which is vital for the flow of humanitarian aid and controlled by the rebels.
The United Nations has described Yemen as the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, with at least 10,000 people killed since the Saudi-led coalition intervened in 2015.
Rights groups fear the actual toll is far higher.
With reporting from AFP