A United Nations medical relief flight evacuated patients from Yemen’s rebel-held capital Sana’a for the first time in over three years Monday.
A Saudi-led military coalition controls Yemen’s airspace and has prevented any flights from leaving Sana’a since August 2016.
Eight patients and their families were flown to Egypt and Jordan to receive “life-saving specialized care not available in Yemen,” according to the World Health Organization. Most were women and children with cancer and kidney failure.
“This is the first of what we hope will be a number of flights in the medical air bridge,” U.N. Resident Coordinator for Yemen Lise Grande said.
The WHO said the medical air-bridge operation is expected to continue with another three flights this week carrying a total of 30 patients. The evacuation program took months to negotiate.
Yemen’s capital has been controlled by the Iran-backed Houthi rebel group since 2014. A coalition of Gulf Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, began a military campaign the following year in support of Yemen’s internationally-recognized government.
The coalition controls Yemen’s airspace and in November 2019 said patients needing medical would be allowed to fly out of Sana’a. The move was among the confidence-building measures aimed at ending the five-year war that has killed thousands of people and displaced millions in what the U.N. has termed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The Houthis criticized the U.N. for the small number of patients airlifted out of Sana’a saying as many as 32,000 patients with serious conditions were waiting for medical evacuations. Patients awaiting evacuation have advanced cancer and brain tumors, or need organ transplants and reconstructive surgeries, the WHO said.
The Norwegian Refugee Council representative in Yemen, Mohammed Abdi, said in a statement Monday that the resumption of the humanitarian airlift “comes too late for thousands of Yemenis who died waiting to leave the country for urgent life-saving care… Many more are still waiting to get the healthcare they need.”
An estimated 94,000 people have been killed in Yemen’s conflict, according to data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Project published last year.