Yemen Hajj pilgrims depart Sanaa on first direct flight to Saudi since 2016

The first commercial flight from Yemen's rebel-held capital to Saudi Arabia since 2016 has taken off carrying Hajj pilgrims, in the latest sign of easing tensions after years of war.

A Yemeni Airways plane carrying 277 travellers departed at around 8 pm on Saturday, an official told AFP news agency said, seven years after Sanaa's international airport was blockaded by the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi rebels.

"Hopefully, the blockade will end, and the airport will remain open. We are very happy and relieved, and I cannot describe the feeling," said Mohammad Askar, one of the travellers.

The Jeddah-bound flight is the first to Saudi Arabia since Sanaa's airport was closed by the coalition blockade in August 2016, more than a year into the Saudi-led military campaign to dislodge the Houthis.

Air traffic was largely halted by the blockade, but there have been exemptions for aid flights that are a lifeline for the population.

Two more flights will depart on Monday and Tuesday, officials said.

The Houthis' Works Minister Ghaleb Mutlaq said about 200 flights would be needed to accommodate the 24,000 people that he said wanted to travel.

"We consider what is happening today as a good gesture, so that airports, especially Sanaa airport, will be opened to Yemeni travellers," Najeeb Al Aji, the Houthis' minister of guidance, Hajj and Umrah, told journalists.

Terms of truce

Thousands of pilgrims in Houthi-held areas travel by bus to Saudi Arabia, or to government-controlled Aden — an arduous 12-hour journey, due to checkpoints — where they can fly to the neighbouring country.

"We can no longer bear the burdens and hardships of travelling to Aden," said Akram Mohamed Murshid, one of the pilgrims boarding the plane.

Fighting in Yemen sharply declined after a UN-brokered truce came into effect in April last year, and full-scale hostilities did not resume even when the ceasefire lapsed in October.

Among the terms of the truce was a resumption in international flights from Sanaa.

The first commercial flight in six years took off for Jordan's capital Amman in May last year.

Peace efforts have accelerated since March when Saudi Arabia, seeking to calm the region as it tries to revamp its oil-reliant economy and attract investment, announced a surprise rapprochement with Iran, seven years after they broke off ties.

After Iran reopened its embassy in Riyadh earlier this month, on Saturday Saudi Arabia's foreign minister visited Tehran, where he held talks with his opposite number.

A Saudi delegation flew to Sanaa in April, the same week as a major prisoner swap that freed nearly 900 detainees in a confidence-building measure.

However, the Saudi and Houthi negotiators failed to agree on a new truce and later Saudi ambassador Mohammed al Jaber, while stressing both sides were "serious" about the process, told AFP that the next steps were unclear.

The conflict has wrecked Yemen, already the Arab poorest country, and created one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters.

More than 150,000 people, including fighters and civilians, have been killed.


Source: TRT