Wounded Houthi rebels have been flown out of the Yemeni capital Sanaa for medical treatment to Oman on a United Nations plane.
The flight for the Omani capital took off at 6pm local time (1500 GMT) and carried 50 rebels, their escorts and a team of doctors, a security source at Sanaa’s international airport told AFP news agency.
The announcement on Monday came after Martin Griffiths, the UN envoy to Yemen, requested this arrangement as a goodwill gesture in the run-up to planned peace talks in Sweden.
The evacuation marks a key step forward in kickstarting stalled negotiations as world powers press for an end to the devastating four-year war that has pushed Yemen, the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, to the brink of famine.
The fate of wounded rebels had been a stumbling block to the start of a previous round of aborted peace talks in September.
“A UN chartered plane will arrive at Sanaa international airport Monday to evacuate 50 wounded combatants accompanied by … three Yemeni doctors and a UN doctor, from Sanaa to Muscat,” Turki al-Maliki, the spokesperson for the Saudi-UAE coalition, said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.
The US-backed military alliance agreed to facilitate the medical evacuations at the request of Griffiths for “humanitarian reasons” and as a “confidence-building” measure, Maliki added in the statement.
There was no immediate reaction from the Houthi rebels or the UN.
The proposed UN-brokered peace talks have been backed by both the rebels and the Saudi-led government and were expected to take place in Sweden this week.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, however, has played down the early December schedule and said he hoped talks would start “this year”.
Houthi rebels have said they will attend the talks if they are guaranteed safe passage.
Talks planned for September in Geneva failed to get under way as the Houthi delegation never left Yemen’s rebel-held capital, arguing that the UN could not guarantee their safe return.
They also accused the world body of failing to secure the evacuation of wounded rebels to Oman.
Previous talks broke down in 2016, when 108 days of negotiations in Kuwait failed to yield a deal and left rebel delegates stranded in Oman for three months.
In recent days, Griffiths has held talks separately with officials from both warring parties as part of efforts to lay the groundwork for talks in Sweden.
Sigurd Neubauer, a non-resident fellow at the Gulf International Forum, called the evacuation announcement a welcome development.
“The fact that we are even discussing this issue, which previously was off limits, is in itself a diplomatic victory,” he told Al Jazeera.
“We should always have cautious optimism because the first results that we would have to look at is whether or not these peace talks take place.
“The second aspect is that if they do indeed take place we will expect some sort of resolution between the Houthis and the UN and the Saudis over whether the UN will take over the management of the port of Hodeidah to help bring in humanitarian supplies into Yemen.
“If that is achieved, then the rest of the peace process will be on good tracks – but that’s the first, if and when the peace talks take place.”
UN aid chief Mark Lowcock had warned last week that Yemen was “on the brink of a major catastrophe”, following a trip to the country.
Yemen has been torn apart by the conflict since 2014, when the Houthis, allied with troops loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, captured large expanses of the country, including Sanaa.
Saudi Arabia launched a massive aerial campaign against the rebels in March 2015, aimed at restoring the government of exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
More than 14 million civilians in Yemen now face starvation, while over three-quarters of the population – some 22 million people – need humanitarian assistance. Aid groups estimate 85,000 children may have died of hunger and cholera while tens of thousands of civilians are believed to have been killed, largely by Saudi-led bombings.