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Official says Yemeni pilgrims depart Sanaa on first direct flight to Saudi Arabia since 2016

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — A commercial flight carrying more than 270 Yemeni Muslim pilgrims left the rebel-held capital of Sanaa on Saturday to Saudi Arabia, an official said, the first such flight in about seven years.

The flight by Yemen’s national carrier Yemenia — also known as Yemen Airways — took off from Sanaa’s international airport at 8 p.m. local time, heading to the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah, Khalid al-Shayyef, head of the Yemeni airport, said.

He told The Associated Press the flight was the first of five that would transfer this year’s Muslim pilgrims from Sanaa to Saudi Arabia for hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca required once in a lifetime of every Muslim who can afford it and is physically able to make it.

Along with Saturday’s flight, two more have been scheduled for Monday and Wednesday, while Houthi and Saudi officials were working on scheduling two additional flights, he said.

Yemen’s capital has been under the control of the Iran-backed Houthis since they descended from their northern stronghold in 2014 and removed the internationally recognized government. The Houthi takeover prompted a Saudi-led coalition to intervene in 2015 to try to restore the government. The coalition closed off the Sanaa airport in Aug. 2016, part of an air and sea blockade on Houthi-held areas in Yemen.

Millions of Muslims from around the world will start converging next week on Mecca in Saudi Arabia to begin the several days of rituals at holy sites in and around the city.

The flights between Sanaa and Saudi Arabia are another sign of easing tensions between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, which has been attempting to end its involvement in country’s conflict.

Saudi and Houthi officials have repeatedly met for talks aimed at a negotiated settlement to the conflict. Such talks gained momentum earlier this year when Saudi Arabia and Iran, the main foreign backer of the Houthis, reached an agreement to restore diplomatic ties after years of frayed relations.

The Yemen conflict has in recent years turned into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It has wrecked Yemen, already the Arab poorest country, and created one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. More than 150,000 people, including fighters and civilians, have been killed.

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This story has been corrected in the fourth paragraph to show that the flight took off Saturday, not Sunday.

Ahmed Al-haj, The Associated Press


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