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 many “mercy flights.”
Seven young patients and their relatives flew out of Sanaa airport, which a Saudi-led coalition supporting the embattled Yemeni government has kept closed since 2016.
The U.N.-marked plane later landed in the Jordanian capital Amman, where passengers were placed in buses which immediately ferried them to hospitals, an AFP photographer said.
“This is the first of what we hope will be a number of flights in the medical air bridge,” U.N. Resident Coordinator for Yemen Lise Grande told AFP before the plane’s departure.
She said more patients and their families would travel to Jordan and Egypt in the coming days, as part of an evacuation program which took months to negotiate.
“It’s crucially important that this first flight has gone,” Grande said.
“All of us feel today that this is a major breakthrough and an indication of hope out of Yemen.”
Yemen’s internationally-recognised government has been fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels since they seized control of the capital in 2014.
In November, the Saudi-led coalition – which intervened on the government’s side and controls Yemen’s airspace- said patients needing medical care would be allowed to fly out of Sanaa.
With hundreds of thousands of people facing starvation, Yemen remains on the brink of famine and is the site of what the U.N. deems the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Tens of thousands of Yemeni children have starved to death since the outset of the war while thousands of civilians have been killed in the fighting.
The United States has played an integral role in supporting the Saudi-coalition, providing billions of dollars in high-tech weaponry as well as training, intelligence sharing, maintenance and logistical support, and even direct-aerial refueling of coalition aircraft operating in Yemen.
The U.N has condemned the coalition’s bombing campaign in Yemen and warned in September that the U.S. and other countries could be held responsible for potential war crimes committed by the coalition, including indiscriminately killing civilians and using starvation as a weapon of war.
The launch of the “air bridge” could be a step towards fully reopening Sanaa airport, a key demand of the Houthis and one issue being pursued in U.N.-led mediation.
‘We are Overjoyed’
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-Huthi 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.”
British charity Save the Children hailed the evacuation program as a “vital lifeline” for thousands of children needing medical care.
It also urged “all stakeholders to open Sanaa airport to commercial flights as well, so that medicines, medical equipment and other goods can come into the north of the country by air.”
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.”
He added many people in Yemen suffered from “severe diseases” and needed to travel.
“The U.N. 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 criticized the plan as inadequate, saying as many as 32,000 patients with serious conditions 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 step before he boarded the flight to Amman.
“We have been waiting for a year and six month to get my son the medical treatment he needs,” he said.
Patients awaiting evacuation include “women and children who suffer from conditions such as aggressive forms of cancer and brain tumors, or who need organ transplants and reconstructive surgeries,” the WHO said in a tweet.
The launch of the evacuations comes despite a deterioration in Yemen’s conflict, with fierce renewed fighting around Sanaa despite a period of calm.