Yemen rebels restrict humanitarian flights arriving in Sanaa

CAIRO (AP) — The Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen said they were imposing severe restrictions starting Saturday on U.N. and other humanitarian flights arriving in the capital, Sanaa.

The Houthi-run Civil Aviation Authority said no humanitarian flights would land in Sanaa between March 25-30. It said in a statement they would allow such flights into Sanaa only on Fridays.

The Houthis said their decision was in response to what they claimed was a prohibition by a Saudi-led coalition that backs the government on commercial flights to and from the Yemeni capital, and a ban on booking flights from Sanaa.

The Houthis provided no evidence supporting their claim of a ban on commercial flights, which were still partly operating as part of last year's cease-fire deal between the warring parties. Yemen's state-run airline operated flights between Sanaa and the Jordanian capital, Amman, as recently as Friday.

Yemen’s war erupted in 2014, when the Houthis seized Sanaa and forced the government into exile in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi-led coalition entered the conflict in March 2015 to try to restore the internationally recognized government to power.

The U.N.’s World Food Program, which manages humanitarian flights to the war-torn country, expressed deep concerns about the Houthi move.

“This decision could have significant impacts on the ability of the United Nations and our NGO partners to deliver urgently required support to people in need,” Abeer Etefa, a spokeswoman for the WFP, said in an email.

Waleed al-Abarah, a spokesman for Yemen’s Human Rights Ministry in Aden, said the Houthi decision amounts to a “war crime," accusing the rebels of weaponizing humanitarian activities to achieve political gains.

In televised comments, he warned of a looming famine in Yemen amid funding shortages of the humanitarian response in 2023.

The Sanaa International Airport was partly reopened for commercial fights last year as part of a U.N.-brokered cease-fire deal between Yemen’s warring parties. The cease-fire expired in October when the two sides failed to reach a compromise to renew the truce.

The Houthi move comes amid an escalation in fighting in the central province of Marib, where the Houthi rebels in recent days attacked government-held areas.

On Saturday, a suspected Houthi attack targeted the convoy of Nabil Shamsan, the governor of government-held province of Taiz, as he was returning from a visit to the city of Mocha on the Red Sea, according to Yemen’s Minister of Information Muammar al-Eryani.

The attack killed one of Shamsan’s companions and wounded two others, al-Eryani said on Twitter. The provincial governor survived the attack, he added.

While, al-Eryani said that attack was by an explosive-laden drone, the state-run SABA news agency later reported that the rebels used a missile and mortar shells in the attack.

A Houthi spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

The escalation comes after Iran and Saudi Arabia reached an agreement earlier this month to restore bilateral relations, reviving hopes of a political settlement to Yemen’s conflict, where the two regional powerhouses support opposing sides.

The Houthi restrictions on humanitarian flights is likely to exaggerate the suffering of Yemenis in Houthi-held areas, including the capital.

Yemen’s conflict has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. More than 21 million people in Yemen, or two-thirds of the country’s population, need help and protection, according to the U.N.