UN medical evacuations to begin from Yemen's rebel-held Sanaa

Sanaa (AFP) - Critically ill Yemeni children in need of medical care are to be evacuated from rebel-held Sanaa on Monday, in what the United Nations said it hopes will be the first of many mercy flights.

Seven young patients and their families gathered at Sanaa airport, which has been closed to commercial flights since 2016, clutching their transport documents ahead of their journey to the Jordanian capital Amman.

"This is the first of what we hope and believe will be many flights," UN Resident Coordinator for Yemen Lise Grande said as the first humanitarian flight was prepared to depart from the war-torn country.

"It's a very important day, it's a day of hope. It shows that everyone wants the people who need help to get that help," she told reporters at the airport.

"The key is to have many flights, bigger planes, so that the people who need aid can get to the places where they will receive it."

Yemen's internationally recognised government, backed by a Saudi-led military coalition, has been fighting the Iran-backed Huthis since 2014, when the rebels seized control of the capital.

In November, the coalition -- which controls Yemen's airspace -- said that patients needing medical care would be allowed to be flown out of Sanaa, which has been closed to commercial flights since 2016.

The move was among confidence-building measures aimed at ending the five-year war which has left tens of thousands of people dead and displaced millions in what the UN has called the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

- 'We are overjoyed' -

One of the children waiting for the evacuation flight, Abdullah Abed, is suffering from kidney failure and needs an organ transplant, his father told AFP.

"We are overjoyed about our travel to Jordan," Abed Ali Murshid said. "Today is the start of the air bridge that we have been waiting for for two years."

"Severe diseases in Yemen are many, and people need to travel. The United Nations must operate the air bridge regularly, send abroad patients suffering from diseases, open Sanaa airport, and end the blockade of Yemen."

The Huthis on Sunday criticised the evacuation plan as inadequate for the needs of thousands of people in urgent need of treatment.

"The World Health Organization said it will transport via a small UN plane only seven patients with their escorts per flight," the rebels said in a statement carried by their Al-Masira channel.

"The number of people signed up for medical evacuations are around 32,000 patients with serious illnesses."

The Norwegian Refugee Council welcomed the start of the humanitarian airlift but said that others were handed a "death sentence" when the coalition closed down the airport in Sanaa.

"Today's move comes too late for thousands of Yemenis who died waiting to leave the country for urgent life-saving care," said Mohamed Abdi, the NRC's country director for Yemen.

"We hope that these medical flights will save the lives of other Yemenis. Many more are still waiting to get the healthcare they need."