First commercial flight launched in years from Sanaa in Yemen

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SANAA, Yemen (AP) — The first commercial flight in six years took off from Yemen’s rebel-held capital on Monday, as part of a fragile ceasefire in the country’s fierce civil war, officials said.

According to media outlets run by Iran-backed Houthi rebels, 151 passenger planes belonging to Yemen Airlines have departed for Amman, the capital of Jordan.

Previously, the plane had come to Sanaa from the southern port city of Aden to pick up passengers. He was greeted with a ceremonial “water salute” as he landed, according to a video posted online by the national carrier. The Houthi media office said a return flight from Amman to Sanaa is expected later on Monday.

The flight is part of a UN-mediated 60-day ceasefire agreement signed by the internationally recognized government and Houthi rebels last month. The ceasefire, which took effect on April 2, was the first nationwide ceasefire in Yemen in six years.

The ceasefire agreement calls for two commercial flights a week from Sanaa to Jordan and Egypt. Houthi-held Sanaa was besieged by the Saudi-led coalition supporting the internationally recognized government.

The closure of the airport caused great economic and human damage – thousands of people lost their jobs as businesses providing the service closed or suffered heavy losses.

Before the blockade, Sanaa airport had around 6,000 passengers a day and more than 2 million passengers each year, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, an international aid organization operating in Yemen.

The flight was originally to depart on April 2, but a dispute over passports issued by the Houthis delayed the departure date. This time, the internationally recognized government allowed passengers with documents issued by the Houthis to board the plane.

The government-run SABA news agency said last week that new Yemeni passports will be issued in Jordan to those arriving with travel documents issued by the Houthis.

Erin Hutchinson, Yemen director of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said the takeoff of the first flight was “a step towards a lasting peace for Yemen”.

“Reopening the airport for a long time was one of the main goals of the ceasefire,” he said, and urged the warring parties to work to implement other elements of the agreement, including the reopening of roads around the government-controlled Taiz and other provinces.

The ceasefire included allowing 18 ships carrying fuel as well as flights. It entered the Hodeida-controlled Red Sea port of Hodeida in a two-month period.

The ceasefire came amid joint international and regional efforts to find a solution to the conflict that has devastated the Arab world’s poorest country and brought it to the brink of famine.

Civil war in Yemen broke out in 2014 when the Houthis seized the capital Sana’a and forced the government into exile. The Saudi-led coalition entered the war in early 2015 to restore the government to power.

Despite daily violations reported by both sides, major ground and air clashes have subsided and rebels have halted their cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, another pillar of the anti-Houthi coalition.

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Magdy reported from Cairo.