UN plane to evacuate 50 injured Yemen rebels ahead of peace talks

Sanaa, YemenUpdated: Dec 03, 2018, 07:15 PM IST

Martin Griffiths (C), the UN special envoy for Yemen, descends from his plane upon his arrival at Sanaa international airport. Photograph:(AFP)

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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.

Fifty wounded rebels will be evacuated from the Yemeni capital for medical treatment Monday, a Saudi-led military coalition said, as the UN envoy landed in Sanaa ahead of planned peace talks in Sweden.

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.

The fate of wounded rebels had been a stumbling block to the start of a previous round of aborted peace talks in September.

The UN is trying to persuade the Huthi Shiite insurgents and the Saudi-backed government to sit down at the negotiating table this month.

Coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki said a UN chartered flight would evacuate 50 wounded combatants, accompanied by three Yemeni doctors and a UN doctor, from Sanaa to the Omani capital, in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.

Wounded militants were transported across the capital, controlled by the Iran-backed Huthis 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.

Griffiths in Sanaa

UN envoy Martin Griffiths landed in Sanaa on Monday, an AFP photographer at the airport said, for talks with rebels ahead of yet another attempt to bring warring parties to the negotiating table. 

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 coalition.

The UN source said the reopening of Sanaa International Airport was a priority at the planned peace talks.

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 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. 

'No excuses'

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 UN-brokered peace talks have been backed by both the rebels and the Saudi-led 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".

Iran also offered support on Monday for the planned negotiations, calling for an end to "the brutal aggression" on Yemen.

Tehran also said it was ready to cooperate with the international community to resolve the crisis.

World powers should put "pressure on the exporters of arms to the aggressors to facilitate the peace process in Yemen and let the Yemeni people decide their country's fate free from the outsiders' interference," the Iranian foreign ministry said.

The rebels have said they will attend the talks in Sweden if they are guaranteed safe passage.

A Huthi spokesman also 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.

Previous talks planned for September in Geneva failed to get under way as the Huthi 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 Huthi 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 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.