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UN evacuates wounded Houthis ahead of planned peace talks

Fifty rebels were flown out of Sanaa on Monday, as the UN seeks to get Yemen's warring parties to attend negotiations in Sweden
Wounded Houthi rebels wait to be evacuated on a UN-chartered flight from Sanaa on Monday (Reuters)

The United Nations has helped evacuate injured Houthi rebels out of Yemen, a critical step aimed at getting the country's warring sides to participate in upcoming peace talks this week.

The UN-chartered flight took off from the airport in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, at 6pm local time Monday carrying 50 wounded rebels, their escorts and a team of doctors, a security source at Sanaa International Airport told AFP news agency.

A Houthi spokesman said the plane landed in Oman's capital, Muscat, later on Monday evening, according to Reuters.

The wounded rebels were evacuated in what was a "confidence-building measure" aimed at securing negotiations between the Houthis and a Saudi-led coalition currently fighting in Yemen, a UN source told AFP.

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Saudi Arabia launched a military offensive in Yemen in 2015 after the Houthis took over the capital and ousted the country's Saudi-backed president, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.

The UN has spearheaded a recent push to hold peace talks between Yemen's warring sides as it sought to stave off a coalition offensive on the Houthi-held port city of Hodeidah, a key point through which humanitarian aid enters the country.

The negotiations are expected to begin as early as Wednesday in Sweden, sources told Reuters news agency.

Houthi leaders have said they hope to attend the talks, but they have insisted on guarantees that their members would be able to safely leave and return to Yemen, and for their wounded to receive medical treatment abroad. The group had also asked to travel on a plane not inspected by the Saudi-led coalition.

A previous attempt to get both sides to the negotiating table faiiled in September after the Houthis failed to show up.

Jeremy Hunt, the British foreign secretary, welcomed the evacuation of the Houthis on Monday, describing the move as "a positive first step".

"Encouraging to see some of the practical steps I discussed with Iranian, UAE & Saudi leaders on recent trips come to pass," he wrote on Twitter.

Adam Baron, a Yemen analyst and visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the evacuations were "significant".

"This was one of the biggest hurdles to the Sweden talks commencing," he tweeted.

Humanitarian catastrophe

Meanwhile, the UN's envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, landed in Sanaa on a separate plane to meet Houthi leaders on Monday.

Griffiths hopes to reach a deal on reopening Sanaa airport, securing a prisoner swap and agreeing to a detente in the critical Yemeni port city of Hodeidah, which could serve as a foundation for a wider ceasefire.

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He was in Sanaa to escort the Houthi delegation to Sweden, a UN source told Reuters, while the Saudi-backed government said it would follow the rebels for peace talks.

Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthi politburo, told Reuters their delegation would travel to Sweden on Tuesday morning on a plane provided by Kuwait and accompanied by Griffiths.

After the evacuation, Griffiths tweeted his thanks to "all the parties who have made this humanitarian gesture possible" and urged "all Yemenis to work together in pursuit of peace and stability".

UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres sought to temper high expectations for the talks last week, however, saying only that he hoped "meaningful" negotiations would take place before the end of the year.

The UN estimates that at least 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen since the war began three years ago, but an independent research group recently said at least 56,000 people have been killed as a direct result of the armed conflict.

Even more Yemenis have been affected by the humanitarian crisis currently engulfing their country, as diseases are widespread and 14 million people are on the verge of famine.

On Monday, Yemen’s information minister, Moammer al-Eryani, said the government had agreed to the Sweden talks as a first step toward "facilitating negotiations" and to end "all excuses invoked by the [rebels] to evade finding peace", AFP reported.

Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree, meanwhile, said the rebels were ready to hold talks "starting with a ceasefire" with the rival coalition, at a press conference broadcast on the Houthis' Al-Masirah television.

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