Mercy flights begin from Yemen after diplomatic breakthrough

Critically ill patients fly on UN plane to Jordan but tens of thousands more need care

Seven critically ill patients and their family members have flown on a United Nations plane to Jordan from Yemen's rebel-held capital Sanaa, inaugurating a medical air bridge intended to evacuate ailing civilians trapped by war.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said most patients suffer from "aggressive forms of cancer and brain tumours [and] need organ transplants and reconstructive surgeries". Another 23 patients are set to be flown out by the end of the week.

Sanaa's international airport has been closed to civilian traffic since 2015 by the Saudi-led coalition which dominates the country's air space in the battle against Houthi rebels. Therefore the air bridge, painfully negotiated over 18 months, is a "major breakthrough", said resident United Nations co-ordinator Lisa Grande. With the aim of reducing tensions during secret talks with the Houthis, Saudi Arabia eventually conceded to the air bridge.

While Grande said the flights show "that people really do care what happens to Yemenis", this is debatable. The WHO, which is bearing the costs of medical care, struggled to find countries ready to accept Yemenis. Nevertheless, she said additional patients would be travelling this month to both Jordan and Egypt.


This limited effort has been criticised by aid groups operating in Yemen as there are 30,000 Yemenis who urgently need care for ailments and medical conditions untreatable in the struggling hospitals of war-gripped north Yemen.

Over the past five years, the UN estimates that fighting has killed more than 100,000 Yemenis throughout the country while 131,000 have died from hunger, disease and lack of healthcare.

Although there are two airports in southern Yemen, controlled by the Saudi-supported Yemeni government, they are far from Sanaa and checkpoints along the rugged mountainous route are manned by hostile groups.

The Houthis, who sponsor the rival national salvation government, have refused a Saudi proposal to divert mercy flights from Sanaa to coalition-controlled Aden or to an airport in southwestern Saudi Arabia so that participating aircraft can be searched.

Mohamed Ali all-Houthi told the BBC that adequate security measures are in place at Sanaa’s airport to prevent weapons smuggling: “We are sovereign and independent,” he said.

The campaign against the Houthis was launched by Saudi crown prince Mo- hammed bin Salman in partnership with Abu Dhabi ruler Mohammed bin Zayed in the expectation that victory would be certain, cheap, and quick. This expectation was soon dashed by the Houthis, tough tribal fighters who had repeatedly defeated Saudi forces in past skirmishes.

Bin Zayed pulled out his forces last summer, compelling the Saudis to de-escalate and talk to the Houthis. However, over the past week the Saudis have resumed air strikes while the Houthis have made major gains on the ground east of Sanaa.

Meanwhile, a writer for the Saudi daily Okaz, Hammoud Abu Taleb, has called for the ousting of Saudi-backed president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the internationally recognised government "for colluding with enemies of the coalition" by holding contacts with the Houthi-led government.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times