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 Huthi rebels for the postponement, claiming they had tried to "smuggle" members of Tehran's Revolutionary Guards and Lebanese militant group Hezbollah onto the flight, while authorities in Sanaa said it was a "violation" of a 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 Huthi rebels has killed hundreds of thousands of people and pushed the country to the brink of famine. UN special envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg voiced concern about the delay 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," he said Sunday. The plane, operated by national carrier Yemenia, was expected to takeoff from the government-controlled southern port city of Aden, stop off in Sanaa, and take 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". It expressed "deep regret to the travellers for not being allowed to operate" the long-awaited flight. Yemenia added that it hoped "all problems will be overcome in the near future", without specifying a date. - Trading blame - There was no immediate reaction from the military coalition that controls Yemen's airspace. But Yemen's Information Minister Moammar al-Eryani said the Huthis were responsible for the flight being scrapped, Yemen's official Saba news agency reported.
Eryani accused the Huthis 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 Huthis "refused" and insisted on adding 60 more "passengers with unreliable passports", he added. The flight "faltered due to the Huthi 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 Huthi-controlled Sanaa, the deputy head of civil aviation Raed Talib Jabal said the coalition's refusal to permit Sunday's flight was "a violation of the truce" that began earlier this month. "The coalition of aggression deliberately seeks to double the suffering of the Yemeni people, while seeking to mislead international public opinion about the humanitarian file," he said. - 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. In another potentially hopeful sign, Yemen's president on April 7 handed his powers to a new leadership council tasked with holding peace talks with the Huthis.
The Huthis 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 Huthi-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.