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Yemen calls for increase in 'mercy flights' out of Sanaa airport

By Nabil Abdullah al-Tamimi in Aden

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A Yemeni girl arrives at Queen Alia International Airport, south of the Jordanian capital Amman, following a second UN medical evacuation from Sanaa on February 8th. [Khalil Mazraawi/AFP]

Yemenis are calling for an increase in "mercy flights" -- the medical airbridge opened last week to transport Yemeni patients in Sanaa in critical need of medical care abroad for treatment.

The medical airbridge opened February 3rd, when seven young patients and their relatives flew out of Sanaa airport, which has been closed to commercial flights since 2016, aboard a UN-marked plane bound for Amman.

A second medical evacuation flight carrying 24 critically ill Yemenis from Sanaa arrived in Jordan on February 8th, an AFP photographer said.

The plane was carrying men, women and children in dire need of medical treatment, along with their companions, a World Health Organisation (WHO) spokesperson said earlier.

The flight had been due to leave Sanaa on February 7th but was rescheduled for "technical reasons," according to the WHO.

The medical evacuation flights are the result of the humanitarian initiative announced on May 14th, 2018, according to Col. Turki al-Maliki, a spokesperson for the Arab Coalition.

The initiative "falls under humanitarian and relief efforts, and stands with the brotherly people of Yemen in alleviating patients' suffering and severe medical conditions", he said in a statement January 27th.

Calls for stepping up mercy flights

Stakeholders are calling for an increase in the frequency and capacity of mercy flights out of Sanaa airport, as the UN plans to transport 32,000 patients abroad for treatment.

Mazen Ghanem, the director general of air transport at the General Authority for Civil Aviation, called on the UN to fulfill its obligations regarding the medical airbridge.

The UN informed the relevant authorities that there will be four monthly flights each carrying 30 patients aboard private planes assigned to transport the UN envoy, not specialised medically-equipped planes, he told Al-Mashareq.

"The UN has not established a plan to transport the 32,000 registered patients, and there are approximately 300,000 patients awaiting these flights," he said.

Ghanem stressed the importance of fully opening Sanaa airport "and allowing airlines to transport patients through it to alleviate their suffering, taking into account the war and the siege the Yemeni people have been under for five years".

"Increasing the number of airbridge flights to transport Yemeni patients is very important to alleviate their suffering, because they live in what amounts to a big prison," said economist Abdul Aziz Thabet.

"Sanaa airport was closed for four years, and this compounded the suffering of the patients, many of whom died while awaiting the launch of the airbridge for nearly two years," he told Al-Mashareq.

Thabet called for "the arrangement of at least one flight a day that transports between 100 and 150 patients".

Houthis disrupting medical evacuation flights

The Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah) want to disrupt the medical airbridge "because opening the airport for direct flights [out of Yemen only] is not in line with their objectives, as the first flight transported the patients aboard a UN plane and not a commercial one", said Deputy Minister of Human Rights Nabil Abdul Hafeez.

He told Al-Mashareq he supports the full opening of Sanaa airport provided it handles only local flights to other airports inside Yemen "to ensure that the Houthi militia does not use the airport to fly Houthi or Iranian commanders out of Yemen".

"The government supports any action that helps ease the suffering of citizens, especially those living in areas controlled by the Iran-backed Houthis," he said.

The Yemeni government's position regarding the medical airbridge has been clear since the Stockholm talks in December 2018, he said.

During the negotiations, the Yemeni government stipulated that "the Sanaa airport would be fully opened to serve as a local airport only for the transport of patients and passengers to Seiyun or Aden airports, where they would board international flights", he said.

This would help ensure "that the Houthis do not fly Iranian and Hizbullah military personnel and experts, who are in the country in large numbers, [out of Yemen]", he added.

The Houthi militia, however, did not agree to the proposal and opted to continue to pressure the international community and the UN to open the Sanaa airport for direct flights "under the pretext of patient transport", he said.

Between September 2014 and March 2015, an average of two flights per day brought in Iranian and Hizbullah military experts, advisers, specialists, as well as weapons, Abdul Hafeez said.

The Houthi militia is pushing to have Sanaa airport opened in order to fly these people out, "proving once again that it seeks only to achieve its interests and does not care about the suffering of the Yemeni people", he said.

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