SANAA - The U.N.’s Yemen envoy visited rebel-held Sanaa on Monday as wounded insurgents were flown out of the capital for medical treatment, a key step towards bringing warring parties to the negotiating table in Sweden.
A U.N. source said efforts were being made to reopen Sanaa International Airport, closed for the past three years because of the war between the Iran-aligned Houthis and the Yemeni government backed by a Saudi-led coalition.
A U.N.-chartered flight left Sanaa with 50 wounded rebels on board and landed in Muscat, Oman’s official ONA news agency reported.
The transfer was “in support of the efforts of the U.N. to prepare the ground for the negotiations planned in Sweden,” ONA said on Twitter.
A U.N. source said the wounded had been evacuated in a “confidence-building measure” aimed at pushing ahead with negotiations between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition this month.
Houthi spokesman Mohamed Abdalsalam tweeted the rebels’ appreciation of U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths for his “humanitarian effort that treats a small part of the Yemeni suffering caused by the closure of the airport and blockade.”
Griffiths was “pleased to confirm” 50 injured Yemenis were to be treated on neutral ground in Muscat and “urged all Yemenis to work together in pursuit of peace and stability,” according to the envoy’s Twitter account.
The evacuation marked a key step in kick-starting stalled negotiations as world powers press for an end to the devastating conflict that has pushed Yemen to the brink of famine.
Saudi Arabia and its allies, who back Yemen’s embattled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, had agreed to allow for the 50 wounded combatants, 50 escorts and a team of Yemeni and U.N. doctors to be flown out to Muscat — a condition set by the Houthis for negotiations.
Kuwait’s Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled al-Jarallah told reporters that a Houthi delegation was set to leave Sanaa for Stockholm on Tuesday morning together with his country’s ambassador to Yemen.
The oil-rich Gulf emirate, which has been a mediator in the devastating conflict, hosted Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom for talks in Kuwait City on Monday.
The fate of wounded rebels had been a stumbling block to the start of a previous round of aborted peace talks in Geneva in September.
The rebels had said they would attend the talks in Sweden if they were guaranteed safe passage and the evacuations.
Journalists were banned from Sanaa airport in the hours leading up to the departure of the U.N. evacuation flight.
Wounded rebels were transported across the capital, controlled by the insurgents since 2014, in ambulances as they made their way to the long-defunct airport.
The proposed U.N.-brokered peace talks have been backed by both the rebels and the government and were expected to take place in Sweden this week.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, however, has played down the early December schedule and said he hoped talks would start “this year.
A U.N. source said the reopening of Sanaa airport was a priority at the next 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 opposing sides have cautiously reiterated their willingness to attend negotiations.
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.”
Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree 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.
Iran also offered support on Monday, saying it was ready to cooperate with the international community to resolve the crisis.
Previous talks planned for September in Geneva failed to get underway as the Houthi delegation never left Sanaa, saying the United Nations could not guarantee their safe return.
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.
U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock warned last week that Yemen was “on the brink of a major catastrophe.
His comments followed renewed deadly clashes between Houthi 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 coalition spokesman said military operations in Hodeida were “ongoing” on Monday.
The U.N. has described Yemen as the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, with at least 10,000 people killed since the coalition intervened.
Rights groups fear the actual toll is far higher.