The first commercial flight carrying more than 270 Yemeni Hajj pilgrims has departed Sana’a to Saudi Arabia, in the latest sign of easing tensions after more than eight years of Saudi-led war against Yemen.
The flight by Yemen’s national carrier Yemenia — also known as Yemen Airways — took off from Sana’a International Airport at 8 p.m. local time (1700 GMT), 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 Sana’a 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 officials from Yemen’s popular Ansarullah resistance movement and Saudi authorities were working on scheduling two additional flights, he said.
Thousands of Yemeni pilgrims travel by bus to Saudi Arabia, or to the southern port city of Aden – an arduous 12-hour journey due to checkpoints – where they can fly to the neighboring country.
“We can no longer bear the burdens and hardships of traveling to Aden,” Akram Mohamed Murshid, one of the pilgrims boarding the plane, said.
“Hopefully, the blockade will end and the airport will remain open. We are very happy and relieved, and I cannot describe the feeling,” Mohammad Askar, another traveler said.
The Yemeni Minister of Public Works and Roads, Ghaleb Mutlaq, said about 200 flights would be needed to accommodate the 24,000 people who wanted to travel.
“We consider what is happening today as a good gesture, so that airports, especially Sana’a airport, will be opened to Yemeni travelers,” Najeeb al-Aji, Yemeni Minister of Guidance, Hajj and Umrah, told journalists.
Saudi Arabia started a brutal war of aggression against Yemen in March 2015, enlisting the assistance of some of its allies, including the United Arab Emirates.
The war, which has enjoyed generous arms, logistical, and political support from the United States and several other Western governments, has been seeking to restore power in Yemen to the country’s former Riyadh- and Washington-friendly government.
The former Yemeni government’s president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi resigned from the presidency in late 2014 and later fled to Riyadh amid a political conflict with Ansarullah. The movement has been running Yemen’s affairs in the absence of a functioning administration.
The war has, meanwhile, killed tens of thousands of Yemenis and turned entire Yemen into the scene of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.