The first commercial flight in nearly six years took off from Yemen’s Sanaa airport for the Jordanian capital, Amman, on Monday, carrying hospital patients needing treatment abroad. Observers say the airport's reopening is a major step forward in a fragile peace process in the conflict which has been grinding on for the past seven years.
The United Nations says the conflict in Yemen, pitting a Saudi-led coalition supporting the government against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, has created a humanitarian catastrophe in the impoverished nation at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. More than 23 million Yemenis across the country need humanitarian help. The war has also threatened security in the Persian Gulf.
The resumption of flights from Sanaa's airport, which is held by the Houthi rebels, is part of an U.N.-brokered two-month cease-fire that went into effect in early April. The airport had been closed to commercial traffic since August of 2016.
Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said such commercial flights are necessary to allow Yemenis, particularly those with health issues, to receive treatment abroad, given the country’s weak medical infrastructure.
“The U.N. is also trying to get a Yemeni passport office established in Sanaa that both parties will agree can certify and issue appropriate documents,” he said.
Jasmin Lavoie, the media coordinator for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Yemen, told VOA that Monday’s flight is “a stepping-stone towards a lasting peace for Yemen.”
“This is one of the main things that had to be settled during that two-months truce," he said. "We’re also hearing that other flights can happen as soon as next Wednesday. It means that Yemenis can seek medical treatment abroad. It will be easier, cheaper to bring goods in and out of Yemen.”
There are tens of thousands of Yemenis outside the country due to the conflict, Lavoie said. He added that the truce has also called for the opening of the roads in the heavily disputed Taiz region and other governorates. His and other international agencies are calling for this and other truce provisions to be realized.
“We’ve been witnessing some encouraging things. Some NGOs have been able to access some places that were not accessible for more than three years to conduct needs assessments and help people," Lavoie said. "We saw a reduction in civilian casualties in the first month of the truce. So, these are really encouraging, but we obviously need more.”
Brookings’ Riedel said the “next big step is to get the cease-fire extended indefinitely.” The U.N. says extending the truce, the first inclusive cease-fire in the war since 2016, would make possible broader political negotiations to end the conflict that has killed tens of thousands of Yemenis.