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Hajj pilgrims board first direct flight from Yemen to Saudi Arabia since 2016

A plane carrying 277 travellers departs Sanaa's international airport to Gulf kingdom, in latest signal of easing tensions
Yemeni Muslims wait at the Sanaa International Airport to board a flight heading to Mecca to perform the Hajj pilgrimage, on 17 June (AFP)

The first commercial flight from Yemen's rebel-held capital to Saudi Arabia since 2016 took off carrying Hajj pilgrims on Saturday, in the latest sign of easing tensions after years of war.

A Yemenia Airways plane carrying 277 travellers departed at around 8pm (1700 GMT), an official told AFP, seven years since Sanaa's international airport was blockaded by the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-backed Houthi movement.

"Hopefully, the blockade will end and the airport will remain open. We are very happy and relieved, and I cannot describe the feeling," said Mohammad Askar, one of the travellers.

The flight is the first since Sanaa's airport was closed by the coalition blockade in August 2016, more than a year into the Saudi-led military campaign to dislodge the Houthis.

Hundreds of thousands of people have died in the fighting or from indirect causes, such as lack of food or water, in what the United Nations calls one of the world's biggest humanitarian crises.

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Despite coalition bombing raids and ground clashes, the Houthis, who seized control of Sanaa in 2014 ousting the internationally recognised government, rule over large swathes of the country.

Two more flights will depart on Monday and Tuesday, officials said. The Houthis' works minister, Ghaleb Mutlaq, said that about 200 flights would be needed to accommodate the 24,000 people that he said wanted to travel.

"We consider what is happening today as a good gesture, so that airports, especially Sanaa airport, will be opened to Yemeni travellers," Najeeb Al-Aji, the Houthis' minister of guidance, Hajj and Umrah, told journalists.

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