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UN Medical Relief Flights Continue From Yemen's Capital

FILE - A Yemeni boy waves from inside a bus before boarding a U.N. plane at Sanaa's airport, Yemen, Feb. 3, 2020. The U.N. medical relief flight was the first in over three years. Another left Feb. 8.

Flights transporting Yemeni medical patients from rebel-held areas continued Saturday when a second plane carrying 24 patients took off from Sanaa bound for Jordan's capital, the U.N. health agency said.

The U.N. flights, which began this week, are seen as a humanitarian breakthrough in the more than five-year-old conflict in the Arab world's poorest country. The conflict began with the 2014 takeover of the capital, Sanaa, by the rebel Houthis, who control much of the country's north.

A Saudi-led military coalition allied with Yemen's internationally recognized government has been fighting the Iran-backed Houthis since 2015. The U.S.-backed coalition closed the airspace and prevented any flights from leaving Sanaa, starting in August 2016.

The Associated Press reported in November that Saudi Arabia and the Houthis were holding indirect, behind-the-scenes talks to end the war mediated by Oman, quoting officials from both sides.

The talks are focused on interim agreements, such as reopening Yemen's main international airport in Sanaa, which was shut down by the Saudi-led coalition in 2016.

Result of talks?

There has been no announced explanation for the medical flights but they could be a result of talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis. The first such flight since the air blockade carrying eight patients and their families left Sanaa on Monday.

Saturday's flight was originally scheduled to depart Sanaa the previous day. However, it did not take off ``for technical reasons,'' the World Health Organization said Friday, without giving details.

Twenty-four patients and their family members ``have departed on the second flight today from Sanaa to Amman to receive the treatment,'' the WHO tweeted.

Among those who left Sanaa on Saturday was Entisar, 30, a cancer patient. WHO said the cancer had spread all over her body.

``The physical and psychological pain is unbearable. All I want is to feel better,'' she was quoted as saying by the U.N. agency. Her last name was not given.

Welcoming the arrival of the second flight to Amman, U.N. envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths said the two flights transported patients to ``receive lifesaving medical care currently unavailable in Yemen.''

Criticism of delay

The Houthi rebels criticized the U.N. for the delay of the second flight and for the small number of patients airlifted out of Sanaa. The rebel-run health ministry has said that 32,000 people need urgent medical and surgical intervention, such as kidney transplants and heart surgeries.

The grinding war in Yemen has killed more than 10,000 people and created the world's worst humanitarian crisis, leaving millions suffering from food and medical care shortages and pushing the country near a famine.