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Yemen: Saudi Arabia allows medical evacuation of Iran envoy with Covid-19

Evacuation said to have come after a Houthi request was agreed by Saudi officials after mediation by Iraq and Oman
The flight from Sanaa airport was a rare exemption from an air blockade enforced by the Saudi-led coalition (AFP)

Iran's ambassador flew out of the rebel-held Yemeni capital Sanaa to receive Covid treatment on Saturday in a rare exemption from an air blockade enforced by a Saudi-led coalition, Houthi, Saudi and Iranian officials said.

"The ambassador left on an Iraqi aircraft and is probably now in Baghdad," a senior Saudi official familiar with Yemeni affairs told AFP.

He said the flight carrying Hassan Irlu was organised at the request of Houthi rebels and agreed by authorities in Saudi Arabia following mediation by Iraq and Oman.

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Iraq has hosted several exploratory meetings between Iranian and Saudi officials seeking a thaw in relations after years of proxy wars around the region. 

Oman is the only Gulf Arab state that has remained neutral in the Yemen conflict and has frequently mediated with the rebels.

Houthi spokesperson Mohammed Abdulsalam said on Twitter: "Under an Iranian-Saudi agreement reached through contacts with Iraq, the Iranian ambassador in Sanaa was transferred on an Iraqi plane due to his health condition."

In Tehran, a foreign ministry spokesperson said Irlu had been suffering from Covid-19 for several days and that arrangements had been made for his evacuation.

'Humanitarian reasons'

Iran is the only country that recognises the rebel administration in Sanaa, and in October last year it sent Irlu there as ambassador. 

It gave no details on how he had reached the city despite the blockade.

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The Saudi-led coalition which has fought alongside forces loyal to Yemen's internationally recognised government since 2015 has repeatedly accused Iran of arming the rebels, a charge it has consistently denied.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that the Houthi request for a flight out for the ambassador was being seen by Saudi officials as a "sign of strains between Tehran and the militant group". 

But speaking to AFP on Saturday, a second Saudi official confirmed that the ambassador's departure had been a medical evacuation.

"The Iranians told us through the Omanis that their ambassador had contracted Covid and must get out," the official said. "We agreed to let him out for humanitarian reasons."

Yemen's healthcare system has been devastated by seven years of war, which has triggered what the United Nations has described as the world's worst humanitarian crisis. 

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