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First flight out of Yemen since 2016 postponed

SANAA: The first commercial flight out of Yemen’s rebel-held capital in six years was indefinitely postponed Sunday, after failing to obtain permits from the Saudi-led coalition, the national carrier said. Yemen’s government blamed the Iran-backed Houthi rebels for the postponement, claiming they had tried to “smuggle” members of Tehran’s Revolutionary Guards and Lebanese militant group Hezbollah onto the flight.

Authorities in Sanaa, though, accused the coalition of trying to keep Yemeni civilians “in a large prison”, and said the denial of permits was a “violation” of a fragile truce. The capital’s airport was due to receive the commercial aircraft Sunday morning, reviving hopes that the war-torn country could resume some normal operations. A brutal seven-year conflict pitting Yemen’s Saudi-backed government against Shiite Houthi rebels has killed hundreds of thousands of people and pushed the country to the brink of famine.

UN special envoy Hans Grundberg voiced concern and called on the warring parties to work with his office “to find a solution that allows the flights to resume as planned.” A renewable two-month truce that went into effect in early April “is meant to benefit civilians including through reducing violence, making fuel available, and improving their freedom of movement to, from and within their country,” Grundberg said.

Trading blame

The plane, operated by national carrier Yemenia, was expected to take off from the government-controlled southern port city of Aden, stop off in Sanaa, and transport passengers in need of medical treatment to Jordan’s capital Amman. But hours before the flight, the airline said “it has not yet received operating permits”.

Yemenia said it hoped “all problems will be overcome in the near future”, without specifying a date. There was no immediate reaction from the military coalition that controls Yemen’s airspace. But Yemen’s Information Minister Moammar Al-Eryani said the Houthis were responsible for the flight being scrapped, Yemen’s official Saba news agency reported.

Eryani accused the Houthis of trying to take advantage of the flights to “smuggle” members of Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards onto the plane using “fake names and forged documents.” While the government had approved 104 passengers, the Houthis “refused” and insisted on adding 60 more “passengers with unreliable passports”, he added.

The flight “faltered due to the Houthi terrorist militia’s non-compliance with the agreement stipulating the approval of passports issued by the legitimate government,” Eryani said. The Saudi-led coalition accuses Iran and Hezbollah of smuggling weapons to the rebels and sending operatives to Yemen to train them to use drones and ballistic missiles against the government and against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, another member of the coalition.

In Houthi-controlled Sanaa, airport director Khaled Al-Shayef said the passports issue was a “baseless justification” for barring the flight. The deputy head of civil aviation Raed Talib Jabal said the coalition’s refusal to allow Sunday’s flight was “a violation of the truce”. “The coalition insists that the Yemeni people remain in a large prison,” he added.

Sick passengers stranded

The flight postponement was a setback for a truce deal that has provided a rare respite from violence in much of the country, and has also seen fuel tankers begin arriving at the port of Hodeida, potentially easing fuel shortages in Sanaa and elsewhere.

The Houthis seized control of Sanaa in 2014, prompting the Saudi-led military intervention to support the government the following year, igniting a war that has caused what the United Nations terms the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The airport in Houthi-controlled Sanaa has been closed to commercial traffic since August 2016 when airstrikes disrupted service to the city.

Aid flights continue to land in Sanaa, although service has periodically halted. The pause of commercial flights has prevented “thousands of sick Yemeni civilians from seeking urgent medical treatment outside the country,” humanitarian groups CARE and the Norwegian Refugee Council said last August. They also cited “economic losses estimated to be in the billions.” Daily flights out of Aden as well as the eastern city of Seiyun fly both domestically and to other countries in the region. – AFP

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