January 8, 2010 / 7:38 PM / 10 years ago

Harsh winter hits Yemenis fleeing conflict: ICRC

GENEVA (Reuters) - Yemeni civilians fleeing a civil conflict in the north face harsh winter conditions that are increasing their misery, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Friday.

Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest nation on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, came to the foreground of U.S.-led efforts to battle militancy after a Yemen-based wing of al Qaeda said it was behind a December 25 plot to bomb a U.S. plane.

As well as its fight against a resurgent al Qaeda, the Yemeni government is battling Shi’ite rebels in the north, a conflict that drew in Saudi Arabia after a cross-border rebel raid in November.

“Harsh winter conditions in the north are making the already dire situation of people fleeing the conflict even worse,” spokeswoman Dorothea Krimitsas told a news briefing.

In Berlin, Germany’s Foreign Ministry said efforts continued to gain the release of five Germans kidnapped in Yemen.

“A family of five Germans — two parents and their children — were taken hostage in June. They lived in Yemen where the parents worked. The Foreign Ministry’s emergency task force continues to work intensively toward a solution,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman said, declining to be named or give details.

On Thursday, a Yemeni official said in Sanaa the Germans and one Briton kidnapped along with them were believed to be alive and authorities were trying to gain their release.

The official accused the Shi’ite rebels of cooperation with al Qaeda in the abductions. The rebels deny working with al Qaeda, a Sunni Muslim group.

A German newspaper said in December that German authorities had obtained a video showing the family’s three children alive.

Three women from the group of hostages — two German nurses and a South Korean teacher — were found shot to death shortly after the kidnapping in northern Yemen.

LACK OF ACCESS

In Geneva, the ICRC said it had been unable to verify allegations that civilians have been killed in the fighting between the government and the rebels as it lacks access to large parts of the conflict areas.

A “regular influx” of displaced people is pouring into Saada City, near the Saudi border, many having fled with only the clothes on their back, Krimitsas said. Several thousand arrived there in the first days of the year, she added.

More Yemeni children are coming down with respiratory tract infections due to the cold night time temperatures, she added.

The ICRC does not have any casualty figures from the conflict but says tens of thousands of people have been uprooted since fighting erupted last August.

It has distributed aid to 73,000 displaced people and is helping to manage five camps, including Mandaba camp close to the Saudi border which holds 7,000.

The Geneva-based agency repeated its appeal to both sides to be able to visit people detained during the conflict.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, additional reporting by Brian Rohan in Berlin

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