Wounded Yemeni rebels arrived at Sanaa airport to be flown to Oman for treatment in a 'confidence-building' measure Monday, as the UN envoy returned seeking to push ahead with planned peace talks.
The evacuation on a UN 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.
Wounded Houthi rebels were transported across the capital, controlled by the Iran-backed insurgents since 2014, in ambulances as they made their way to the long-defunct Sanaa International Airport on Monday.
Inside the airport departure hall, other wounded rebels -- some in suits and wheelchairs -- lined up awaiting their evacuation to Muscat.
A security official inside Sanaa airport told AFP the rebels had begun to board the private, UN-supervised flight on Monday evening.
Coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki confirmed 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 have said they will now attend the talks in Sweden if they are guaranteed safe passage.
The UN is trying to persuade the Houthis insurgents and the Saudi-backed government to sit down at the negotiating table this month.
UN envoy Martin Griffiths landed in Sanaa on Monday, an AFP photographer at the airport said, for talks with the rebels.
A UN source said the reopening of Sanaa International Airport, shut for more than three years following air raids by the Saudi-led coalition, was a priority at the planned peace talks.
The Huthis had announced at the weekend that the airport could now meet the requirements of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to "receive civilian flights".
The ICAO has not released a statement on Sanaa airport.
A UN 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 proposed UN-brokered peace talks have been backed by both 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 Sweden talks as a first step towards "facilitating negotiations" and to end "all excuses invoked by the coupists (rebels) to evade finding peace".
Huthi military spokesman Yahya Saree said the rebels were ready to hold talks "starting with a ceasefire" 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 cooperate with the international community to resolve the crisis.
Previous talks planned for September in Geneva failed to get under way as the Houthi delegation never left Sanaa, 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.
UN aid chief Mark Lowcock warned last week that Yemen was "on the brink of a major catastrophe".
His comments followed renewed deadly clashes between Houthi rebels and pro-government forces in the Red Sea port city of Hodeida, which is vital for the flow of humanitarian aid and controlled by the rebels.
The coalition spokesman said Monday that military operations in Hodeidah were "ongoing".
The United Nations has described Yemen as the world's worst humanitarian disaster, with at least 10,000 people killed since the coalition intervened in 2015.
Rights groups fear the actual toll is far higher.
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