Iran's envoy to Yemen's rebel Houthi movement has died of COVID-19 after being repatriated last week, Iran's Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday amid speculation over whether friction between Iran and the rebel group was behind the departure.
The ambassador Hasan Irloo "was evacuated in poor condition due to delayed cooperation from certain countries," ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told state media, without naming any country.
The spokesman appeared to be referring to Saudi Arabia, which along with Iraq had helped in Irloo's transfer from the Yemeni capital Sanaa on board an Iraqi plane, skirting a sweeping blockade imposed by a Saudi-led coalition on Yemen's Houthi-controlled zones, according to a Houthi spokesman.
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In return for letting Irloo fly out to Baghdad, and from there back to Iran, Riyadh demanded the release of several Saudis held by the Houthis in Yemen, according to several reports. There has been no official confirmation of their release.
The Saudi government media office CIC did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
Saudi Arabia and Iran, the region's Sunni Muslim and Shi'ite powers, launched direct talks this year while the West tries to salvage a nuclear pact.
Khatibzadeh honoured Irloo as a "martyr" and said he was a survivor of chemical attacks in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
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Last December, the U.S. Treasury blacklisted Irloo 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 its power in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere in the region.
A Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015 against the Iran-aligned Houthis after the movement ousted the internationally recognized government from Sanaa, the capital. The coalition has imposed a sea and air blockade on areas the group controls.