August 25, 2009 / 2:27 PM / 10 years ago

Aid groups seek access to 150,000 in Yemen conflict

* Fighting spreads, hampers aid for 150,000 displaced people

* Aid agencies see risk of malaria, diarrhoeal diseases

* Yemen government may open humanitarian corridor, U.N. says

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA, Aug 25 (Reuters) - Escalating violence between Yemen’s government and Shi’ite Muslim rebels is making it hard to reach tens of thousands of people who have fled clashes in the north, aid agencies said on Tuesday. They appealed for better access to the displaced and warned of a high risk of outbreaks of malaria and diarrhoeal diseases among the already malnourished population.

The U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said an estimated 35,000 people had fled the renewed violence over the last two weeks. Some 120,000 had been made homeless by earlier rounds of fighting in an intermittent conflict that began in 2004.

Land travel between the Yemeni capital Sanaa and the rebel stronghold in northwestern Saada province has been hampered by insecurity and road blocks, and fighting has spilled over to Amran province, the United Nations said.

"Insecurity has made it difficult for the humanitarian community to access the affected population and obtain accurate information on numbers, locations and needs," Elisabeth Byrs of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs told a news briefing. "We need access urgently."

Fighting has flared in recent weeks between government forces and Houthi rebels in mostly Sunni Muslim Yemen. Yemeni forces began an offensive using air strikes, tanks and artillery in what officials say is an attempt to crush the revolt.


The foreign minister has indicated the government would consider opening a humanitarian corridor, according to Byrs.

But for now relief aircraft are not allowed to land at Saada airport, which is reserved for military operations, she said.

"Humanitarian workers must be protected and given safe passage to provide emergency aid," the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a separate statement.

The neutral humanitarian agency said it had provided health centres and hospitals with medical supplies and had donated 100 body bags to the Health Ministry.

The U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP) began distributing one-month rations on Monday to 10,000 people who had fled to Hajjah, southwest of Saada, spokeswoman Emilia Casella said.

Some Yemenis are thought to have fled north towards Saudi Arabia, but there has been no word of any crossing into the kingdom, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.

The surge in fighting is worsening an already "dire and complex humanitarian emergency", spokesman Andrej Mahecic said.

UNHCR staff in Saada report the city has been without water and electricity for two weeks, he said. "There is also a shortage of fuel and it is becoming increasingly dangerous and hard for people to reach the market to get food."

Some 73 of every 1,000 children born in Yemen die before turning five, giving it one of the region’s highest child mortality rates, according to UNICEF.

"So as you can see, the conflict is exacerbating an already difficult situation for children in Yemen," UNICEF spokeswoman Miranda Eeles said.

(Editing by Victoria Main)

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