DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran said on Tuesday its envoy to Yemen’s rebel Houthi movement has died of COVID-19 after being repatriated last week, blaming Saudi Arabia for delaying his departure from the Yemeni capital Sanaa.
Saudi Arabia and Iraq helped to transfer ambassador Hasan Irlu on board an Iraqi plane, according to a Houthi spokesman.
“We had to try for a few days to get permission…to send a plane from Iran or another country to take him quickly to a well-equipped hospital in Iran, but unfortunately the Saudi side decided too late and some Saudi bodies procrastinated,” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said.
A Saudi-led coalition that has been battling the Iran-aligned Houthi movement for more than six years has imposed a sea and air blockade on areas the group controls.
The Saudi government media office CIC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Saudi Arabia and Iran, the region’s Sunni Muslim and Shi’ite powerhouses, launched direct talks this year at a time when global powers are trying to salvage a nuclear pact with Tehran and as U.N.-led efforts to end the Yemen war stall.
“We will formally voice our protest in accordance with international conventions, and we hope that Yemen will be able to move soon… towards a political solution and get out of this war and severe humanitarian siege,” Amirabdollahian told Iranian media.
Last December, the U.S. Treasury blacklisted Irlu and described him as an official of Iran’s elite Quds Force, the overseas arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and a pillar of Iranian efforts to project power in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere.
“We have lost a great friend,” Houthi deputy foreign minister Hussein al-Ezzi said on Twitter.
Two Yemeni political sources and a foreign source said Irlu had recently kept a low profile due to illness and political tension.
The Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015 against the Houthis after the movement ousted the internationally recognised government from Sanaa.
(Reporting by Dubai newsroom, Mohammed Ghobari and Lisa Barrington; Editing by Jacqueline Wong and Ed Osmond)