Yemeni children in critical need of medical care were evacuated Monday from the rebel-held capital Sanaa, in what the United Nations hopes will be the first of more mercy flights.
Seven young patients and their relatives flew out of Sanaa airport, which a coalition supporting the embattled Yemeni government has kept closed to commercial flights since 2016, aboard a UN-marked plane bound for Amman.
‘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, adding that more patients and their families would travel to Jordan and Egypt in coming days.
‘It's crucially important that this first flight has gone,’ she said of the evacuation programme which took months to negotiate.
‘All of us feel today that this is a major breakthrough and an indication of hope out of Yemen.’
Yemen's internationally-recognised government, backed by the coalition, has been fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels since 2014 when they seized control of the capital.
In November, the Saudi-led coalition -- which controls Yemen's airspace -- said patients needing medical care would be allowed to fly out of Sanaa.
The move was among confidence-building measures aimed at ending the five-year war that has killed thousands of people and displaced millions in what the UN has termed the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
The lauch of the ‘air bridge’ is a rare bright spot in Yemen, and a possible step towards reopening Sanaa airport which is a key demand of the Houthis and one of the issues being pursued in UN-led mediation.
- 'We are overjoyed' -
Grande said the youngsters on the plane were suffering from serious conditions including cancer and kidney failure.
‘These are heartbreaking cases,’ she said.
‘It is clear there are literally thousands of patients who haven't received the treatment they need because of the blockade... With the first flight, we've opened that door.’
One of the children on Monday's evacuation flight, Abdullah Abed, is in urgent need of a kidney transplant, his father told AFP.
‘We are overjoyed,’ Abed Ali Murshid said. ‘Today is the start of the air bridge that we have been waiting for two years.’
‘Severe diseases in Yemen are many, and people need to travel. The United Nations must operate the air bridge regularly, send abroad patients suffering from diseases, open Sanaa airport, and end the blockade of Yemen,’ he said.
The Houthis on Sunday criticised the plan as inadequate, saying as many as 32,000 patients with serious illnesses were waiting to sign up for medical evacuations.
A World Health Organization (WHO) spokeswoman told AFP that three more flights have been scheduled for February 4, 5 and 7, bound for Amman and Cairo.
For Ayman Abdullah, whose son suffers from a spinal injury, Monday's move was a ‘positive step and a good sign’ for Yemen.
Ali Salah, whose son has a severe shoulder injury, also welcomed the opening of the medical air bridge.
‘We have been waiting for a year and six month to get my son the medical treatment he needs,’ he said before boarding the flight to Amman.
Patients awaiting evacuation include ‘women and children who suffer from conditions such as aggressive forms of cancer and brain tumours, or who need organ transplants and reconstructive surgeries,’ the WHO said in a tweet.
The Norwegian Refugee Council said thousands of Yemenis had been handed a ‘death sentence’ when the coalition closed Sanaa airport as part of an anti-Houthi blockade.
‘Today's move comes too late for thousands of Yemenis who died waiting to leave the country for urgent life-saving care,’ said Mohamed Abdi, the NRC's country director for Yemen.
‘We hope that these medical flights will save the lives of other Yemenis. Many more are still waiting to get the healthcare they need.’
The launch of the evacuations comes against a backdrop of a deterioration in Yemen's conflict, with fierce renewed fighting around Sanaa after a period of calm.
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