Plane leaves Yemen capital for Saudi, first since 2016

The first commercial flight from Yemen’s rebel-held capital to Saudi Arabia since 2016 took off carrying hajj pilgrims on Saturday, in the latest sign of easing tensions after years of war.

A Yemenia Airways plane carrying 277 travellers departed at around 8 pm (1700 GMT), an official told AFP, seven years after Sanaa’s international airport was blockaded by the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-backed Huthi rebels.

“Hopefully, the blockade will end and the airport will remain open. We are very happy and relieved, and I cannot describe the feeling,” said Mohammad Askar, one of the travellers.

The Jeddah-bound flight is the first to Saudi Arabia since Sanaa’s airport was closed by the coalition blockade in August 2016, more than a year into the Saudi-led military campaign to dislodge the Huthis.

Air traffic was largely halted by the blockade, but there have been exemptions for aid flights that are a lifeline for the population.

Hundreds of thousands of people have died in the fighting in Yemen or from indirect causes such as lack of food or water, in what the United Nations calls one of the world’s biggest humanitarian crises.

But despite coalition bombing raids and ground clashes, the Huthis, who seized control of Sanaa in 2014, ousting the internationally recognised government, rule over large swathes of the country.

Two more flights will depart on Monday and Tuesday, officials said. The Huthis’ Works Minister Ghaleb Mutlaq said about 200 flights would be needed to accommodate the 24,000 people that he said wanted to travel.

“We consider what is happening today as a good gesture, so that airports, especially Sanaa airport, will be opened to Yemeni travellers,” Najeeb Al-Aji, the Huthis’ minister of guidance, hajj and umrah, told journalists.

– ‘Uptick in rhetoric’ –

Thousands of pilgrims in Huthi-held areas travel by bus to Saudi Arabia, or to government-controlled Aden — an arduous 12-hour journey, due to checkpoints — where they can fly to the neighbouring country.

“We can no longer bear the burdens and hardships of travelling to Aden,” said Akram Mohamed Murshid, one of the pilgrims boarding the plane.

Fighting in Yemen sharply declined after a UN-brokered truce came into effect in April last year, and full-scale hostilities did not resume even when the ceasefire lapsed in October.

Among the terms of the truce was a resumption in international flights from Sanaa. The first commercial flight in six years took off for Jordan’s capital Amman in May last year.

Peace efforts have accelerated since March when Saudi Arabia, seeking to calm the region as it tries to revamp its oil-reliant economy and attract investment, announced a surprise rapprochement with its powerful rival Iran, seven years after they broke off ties.

After Iran reopened its embassy in Riyadh earlier this month, on Saturday Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister visited Tehran, where he held talks with his opposite number.

A Saudi delegation flew to Sanaa in April, the same week as a major prisoner swap that freed nearly 900 detainees in a confidence-building measure.

However, the Saudi and Huthi negotiators failed to agree on a new truce and later Saudi ambassador Mohammed al-Jaber, while stressing both sides were “serious” about the process, told AFP that the next steps were unclear.

“We are all aware that the road to peace is going to be long and difficult,” UN special envoy Hans Grundberg said at a forum in The Hague this week, noting “an uptick in public rhetoric threatening large-scale escalation”.

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