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First commercial flight in 6 years leaves Yemen's rebel-held capital

A firefighter truck celebrates with a water jet the first Yemen Airways flight in six years to leave from Sanaa airport
— Sanaa (AFP)

The first commercial flight in nearly six years took off from Yemen's rebel-held capital Monday, a major step forward in a peace process that has provided rare relief from conflict.

The Yemenia plane carrying 126 passengers, including hospital patients needing treatment abroad and their relatives, took off from Sanaa to the Jordanian capital Amman just after 9:00 am (0600 GMT).

Before take-off, the plane with red-and-blue tail livery taxied through an honour guard of two fire trucks spraying jets of water.

Sanaa's airport has been closed to commercial traffic since August 2016 because of air strikes by the Saudi-led military coalition, who are fighting Iran-backed Huthi rebels.

"I'm so happy with the opening of Sanaa airport," said Lutfiyah, a wheelchair-bound passenger who did not want to give her full name. "Today is a day of celebration, and I hope that it remains open."

- 'More than wonderful' -

Yemeni passengers leave the Queen Alia Airport after their arrival to the Jordanian capital Amman on May 16, 2022, on the first commercial flight in nearly six years from Yemen`s rebel-held capital Sanaa

Sanaa resident Muhammad Zaid Ali was accompanying his three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Razan, who has a brain tumour.

"The flight was full of hopeless people being treated in Yemen, people who had to wait for this opportunity for seven years," he told AFP on arrival in Jordan.

"It feels more than wonderful. I did not expect the plane to take off and to allow us to travel from Yemen."

Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country, has been wracked with war since the coalition stepped in to support the government in 2015, a year after the Huthis seized control of the capital.

According to United Nations figures, more than 150,000 people have died in the violence and millions have been displaced, creating what it calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

But a truce has been in place since April 2, coinciding with the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Five days after it took effect, Yemen's Saudi-based president handed his powers to a leadership council tasked with holding peace talks with the rebels.

The plane was carrying hospital patients needing treatment abroad

Resuming flights from Sanaa, working to reopen roads to the rebel-besieged city of Taez and allowing fuel tankers into the Huthi-held port of Hodeida -- a lifeline for Yemen -- were all part of the truce agreement.

UN special envoy Hans Grundberg called Monday's flight an "important and long-awaited step".

The agreement provides for two weekly return flights to Amman and Cairo.

"I hope this provides some relief to the Yemenis who need to seek medical treatment abroad, pursue education and business opportunities, or reunite with loved ones," he said in a statement.

While fuel tankers have docked in Hodeida and flights have now resumed from Sanaa, the main routes into Taez remain cut off.

- 'Stepping stone' towards peace -

Yemeni passengers leave the Queen Alia Airport following their arrival to the Jordanian capital Amman on May 16

Washington also welcomed the flight. "The United States encourages the parties to seize this opportunity to advance broader peace efforts for the sake of the Yemeni people," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

"We look forward to regular flights to and from Sanaa as called for in the UN-led truce," Blinken added.

Erin Hutchinson, Yemen country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council aid agency, called the flight "a stepping stone towards a lasting peace for Yemen".

The inaugural flight under the truce was planned for April 24 from Sanaa to Amman, but had to be scrapped after Yemenia said it did not receive the necessary permits.

Each side blamed the other for the hold-up, while the United Nations called for a quick resolution to the impasse.

Last week Yemen's government said it would allow citizens in rebel-held areas to travel on Huthi-issued passports, removing a barrier to the flights.

The government has agreed "during the armistice period to allow the Yemeni people who were held hostage to the (Huthis) the opportunity to travel through Sanaa airport, with passports issued by Huthi-controlled areas," a Yemeni official told AFP.