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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

UN plane evacuates wounded Houthis to Oman ahead of peace talks 

Martin Griffiths touches down in Sanaa as intra-Houthi rift widens over evacuee disagreements

UN special envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths holds talks with a Houthi representative upon his arrival in Sanaa. EPA
UN special envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths holds talks with a Houthi representative upon his arrival in Sanaa. EPA

A plane carrying some 50 Houthi rebels wounded in fighting in Yemen's civil war left on Monday for neighboring Oman where they will receive treatment, according to the United Nations.

The Arab Coalition on Monday said it had approved the relocation of the wounded fighters for treatment, meeting a key condition for the Iran-backed group to attend UN-sponsored peace talks in Sweden this week.

“There is a plane that has left Yemen today (Monday), heading for Oman and we hope that will help with the situation," a UN spokesman said in New York.

“If everyone is able to get to Muscat safely that will be an important confidence building step.”

The approval by the Saudi-led forces came after a request by UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths, who landed in Sanaa on Monday to speak to rebel leaders.

For months Mr Griffiths has shuttled between the country's warring parties to salvage a previous round of talks that collapsed in September after the Houthis failed to show up.

This time, the Yemeni government says it will wait for the Houthi delegation to leave Sanaa for Sweden before travelling to the peace talks themselves, a government official told The National. “We anticipate that we will be in Sweden within the next two days,” he said.

The UN-chartered plane removed 50 injured fighters, their respective companions and three Yemeni doctors from Sanaa to Muscat, coalition spokesman Turki Al Malki said.

The coalition agreed to facilitate the medical evacuations as a "confidence-building measure".

Sources in Sanaa told The National that intra-Houthi rifts have widened in the lead-up to the removal of the wounded. According to the source, who asked to remain anonymous, top officials have demanded that members of the Zaidiyyah sect be allowed to travel first - sparking anger among their juniors, who ask that those with life-threatening injuries be given priority.

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The Houthis have said they would head to Sweden once the wounded were relocated, and only if their delegation's plane was not inspected by the coalition. The group has agreed to travel on a plane provided by Kuwait.

Also on Monday Iranian state TV said Tehran had agreed to back the talks and find a political solution.

"Iran welcomes the talks in Sweden ... Tehran is ready to help international talks to end the crisis and underlines the importance of accelerating providing humanitarian aid to the people," Iran's Foreign Ministry said in a statement, according to state TV.

The talks could start on Wednesday, a diplomatic source familiar with the matter told The National.

About 8.4 million Yemenis are facing starvation, although the United Nations has warned that figure will probably rise to 14 million. Three quarters of impoverished Yemen's population, or 22 million people, require aid.

The Houthis, who are adept at guerrilla warfare, hold most population centres including Sanaa and the port city of Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions that is now a focus of the war.

Mr Griffiths hopes to reach a deal on reopening Sanaa airport and securing a prisoner swap and a ceasefire in Hodeidah as a foundation for a wider truce, including a halt to coalition air strikes that have killed thousands of civilians and Houthi missile attacks on Saudi cities.

The group had agreed to hand over management of Hodeidah port, the entry point for most of Yemen's commercial imports and vital aid supplies, to the United Nations, but the sides remain at odds about who should control the Red Sea city.

The coalition, which has previously called on the Houthis to quit Hodeidah entirely, last month renewed an offensive on the city to weaken the rebels by severing their main supply line.

Fighting has abated amid renewed UN peace efforts and as aid groups warn that a full-scale assault may exacerbate the country's famine crisis.