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Veteran aid expert Egeland warns of 'Biblical' famine in Yemen

GENEVA (Reuters) - Yemen faces a “famine of Biblical proportions”, veteran aid expert Jan Egeland warned on Wednesday during a visit to the war-battered nation, expressing fury over the failure of the “men with guns and power” to end the crisis.

Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, Jan Egeland, addresses a news conference at Sanaa airport at the end of a visit to Yemen May 3, 2017. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Yemen’s two years of civil war have pitted the Iran-aligned Houthi rebel group against a Saudi-backed coalition, causing economic collapse and severely restricting the food and fuel imports on which Yemen traditionally depends.

The United Nations conservatively estimates that more than 10,000 people have been killed, according to data from the health facilities that are still functioning. Experts fear the real figure is much higher.

Egeland, who heads the Norwegian Refugee Council and also advises the U.N. on Syrian humanitarian operations, told Reuters by telephone from the Yemeni capital Sanaa that although Yemen’s war was smaller than Syria’s, it had led to an epic disaster.

“All our efforts through the World Food Programme reached 3.1 million of 7 million people who are on the brink of famine. So it means basically that 4 million people got nothing in April and these people are staring into the naked eye of starvation.

“We will have a famine of Biblical proportions, if it continues like now with only a portion of those in greatest need getting humanitarian relief,” he told Reuters after visiting Sanaa, the port of Aden and the town of Amran.

Egeland, a former head of the U.N. humanitarian office, said the crisis was not getting the international attention it needed because few journalists or diplomats could get into the country.

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“I’m coming out of here angry with those men with power and guns, inside Yemen, in regional capitals and international capitals who are not able to fix this man-made crisis,” Egeland said. “It’s not rocket science.”

Half a million children could die at any time, and many are already doing so “quietly and tragically” in their homes, he added.

Egeland urged the United States and Britain to help stop the war. They are allies of Saudi Arabia, leader of the alliance seeking to restore the internationally recognized Aden-based government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

In a separate statement, he also appealed to Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates to stop adding “fuel to this fire”. The Sunni Muslim Gulf Arabs see Shi’ite Iran, their arch foe, as bent on regional domination, something Tehran denies.

Egeland said all relevant countries should work toward securing a ceasefire and “meaningful peace talks” as well as the lifting of economic restrictions and sanctions that have exacerbated the humanitarian crisis.

Last month a U.N. pledging conference for Yemen raised promises of $1.1 billion, about half of what is needed for the year. Without an immediate and massive injection of new cash, Egeland said, the aid flow will halt by July.

But the key to ending the humanitarian crisis is reviving the shattered, economy, as it is not possible to maintain a nation of 27 million people with aid injections, he said.

“When people have no income and the prices of food in the market have tripled, hungry people can only afford to look at the food in the market. They cannot afford to buy it,” Egeland said, adding that there were no food stocks left in Yemen.

“There are no reserves, there are no warehouses there like in many of the other wars I have visited. Everything goes straight into hungry mouths,” he said.

Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Gareth Jones