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'Famine-like conditions' in areas of Yemen: WFP

GENEVA (Reuters) - “Famine-like conditions” have been detected in areas of Yemen, although an official declaration of famine has yet to be made, the U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP) told Reuters on Thursday.

A woman sits with her children near their tent at a camp for internally displaced people in Dharawan, near the capital Sanaa, Yemen February 28, 2017. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Yemen is reeling from two years of civil war that pits the Iran-allied Houthi rebels against a Western-backed coalition led by Saudi Arabia. At least 10,000 people have been killed in the fighting that has unleashed a humanitarian crisis.

The impoverished country is among four - along with South Sudan, Somalia and northeast Nigeria - that face famine, although it has only been declared in some areas of South Sudan.

“There are famine-like conditions in the country (Yemen),” WFP spokeswoman Emilia Casella told Reuters in response to a query.

Such conditions prevail in parts of Taiz, Hodeida, Lajh, Abyan and Sadaa, although access is difficult, she said, speaking from WFP headquarters in Rome.

“Those are priority governorates, districts where there are areas where there are famine-like conditions,” she said, adding that families in these areas receive full rations.

Some 6.7 million people in Yemen are classified in phase 4 on an international scale of food security, with phase 5 constituting a famine, she noted. “We really need to act now before it falls into official famine.”

The United Nations is hosting a major pledging conference for Yemen in Geneva on Tuesday. The world body has appealed for $2.1 billion to provide food and other life-saving aid, saying that Yemen’s economy and institutions are collapsing.

The U.N. refugee agency warned this month that the risk of mass starvation in the four countries is rising rapidly. In all, about 20 million people are at risk in areas where harvests have failed and acute malnutrition rates are increasing, particularly among children.

For famine to be declared, there are three criteria. More than 20 percent of the population has an “extreme food gap, meaning they can’t feed themselves”; 30 percent or more of children under age 5 suffer acute malnutrition; and there is a doubling of the rate of mortality, Casella said. This would mean more than 4 deaths for every 10,000 children every day.

The Houthis control the capital Sanaa and large swathes of territory. The Saudi-led coalition is trying to restore the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, including through a devastating aerial bombing campaign.

The Yemeni government and its Arab allies are preparing an assault on Hodeidah port, which has been the entry point of nearly 80 percent of food imports, because they say the Houthis use it to smuggle weapons and ammunition.

Hodeidah port remains key to commercial trade and humanitarian goods, Casella said, adding: “Alternatives are being looked at.”

But she cited concerns about the road structure around some other ports and limited availability of vehicles to move cargo.

Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul in London; editing by Ralph Boulton