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UN to evacuate wounded Houthi rebels from Yemen before planned peace talks

Authorities in Sanaa sterilising water supplies at wells, distribution networks and houses to help stem world's worst outbreak of cholera
Houthi fighters ride military vehicle during gathering in Sanaa (AFP/file photo)

A UN plane will evacuate 50 wounded Houthi fighters from Yemen's rebel-held capital Sanaa on Monday as a "confidence building measure" ahead of planned peace talks in Sweden, a Saudi-led military coalition said.

"A UN chartered plane will arrive at Sanaa international airport Monday to evacuate 50 wounded combatants... three Yemeni doctors and a UN doctor, from Sanaa to Muscat," a coalition spokesperson said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.

The fate of wounded rebels had been a stumbling block to the start of a previous round of aborted peace talks in September, AFP said.

Almost 10,000 people have been killed since the coalition joined the conflict in 2015, triggering what the UN calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis. Rights groups fear the toll is far higher. UN agencies say 14 million people are at risk of starvation in Yemen.

In a recent report, the Save the Children charity group said as many as 85,000 children under five may have died as a result of starvation or disease, especially cholera, in Yemen since 2015.

Authorities in Sanaa are sterilising water supplies at wells, distribution networks and houses to help stem the world's worst outbreak of cholera, Reuters reported on Saturday.

Almost four years of war have crippled healthcare and sanitation systems in Yemen, where some 1.2 million suspected cholera cases have been reported since 2017, with 2,515 deaths.

The World Health Organisation warned in October that the outbreak is accelerating again with roughly 10,000 suspected cases now reported per week, double the average rate for the first eight months of 2018.

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The Saudi-led coalition agreed to facilitate the medical evacuations at the request of UN envoy Martin Griffiths for "humanitarian reasons" and as a "confidence building measure," the spokesperson added.

Houthi rebels on Thursday said they would attend UN-brokered peace talks in Sweden this week if guarantees to ensure they can leave home and return back are maintained.

Yemen's internationally recognised government, which is backed by the Saudi-led coalition, has already said it would attend the planned talks in Sweden.

Griffiths has held talks separately in the past few days with officials from both sides as part of efforts to lay the groundwork for the peace talks.

In September, a previous round of UN-led talks failed when the Houthis refused to travel to Geneva, accusing the world body of failing to guarantee their delegation's return to Sanaa or secure the evacuation of wounded rebels to Oman.

Previous talks broke down in 2016, when 108 days of negotiations in Kuwait failed to yield a deal and left rebel delegates stranded in Oman for three months.

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