November 23, 2017 / 3:21 PM / 25 days ago

Aid agencies say Yemen blockade remains, Egeland calls it 'collective punishment'

GENEVA (Reuters) - The Saudi-led coalition’s blockade of Yemen, which has cut off food imports to a population where 7 million people are on the brink of famine, is “illegal collective punishment” of civilians, a prominent aid official said on Thursday.

Major agencies said aid was still blocked a day after the Saudi-led military coalition said it would let humanitarian supplies in.

The U.S.-backed coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen said on Wednesday it would allow aid in through the port of Hodeidah, as well as U.N. flights to the capital Sanaa, more than two weeks after blockading the country.

“We have not yet had any movement as of now,” said Jens Laerke, spokesman of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance.

Jan Egeland, a former U.N. aid chief who now heads the Norwegian Refugee Council, said of the blockade: “In my view this is illegal collective punishment.”

Egeland, whose group helps 1 million Yemenis, welcomed the coalition announcement as a “step in the right direction”, but added: “We only have it in writing now and haven’t seen it happen.”

The coalition closed air, land and sea access on Nov. 6 to stop the flow of arms to the Houthis from Iran. The action came after Saudi Arabia intercepted a missile fired toward Riyadh. Iran has denied supplying weapons.

“Sending a missile in the direction of Riyadh is really very bad. But those who are suffering from the blockade had nothing to do with this missile,” Egeland told Reuters while in Geneva.

“Even if both the flights and humanitarian shipments will go through now, it is not solving the underlying crisis that a country that needs 90 percent of its goods imported is not getting in commercial food or fuel.”

Houthi authorities who control the capital Sanaa were also imposing restrictions on access for aid workers, he said.

The United Nations says some 7 million Yemenis are on the brink of famine and 945,000 have been infected since April with cholera. More than 2,200 people have died.

U.N. officials have submitted requests to the coalition for deliveries via Hodeidah and Sanaa, and the “hope and expectation” was that the vital aid pipelines would re-open on Friday, the U.N.’s Laerke said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was vital to get commercial traffic resumed.

“Yemenis will need more than aid in order to survive the crisis and ward off famine,” spokeswoman Iolanda Jaquemet said.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

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