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Yemen govt seeks U.N. oversight of port: prime minister

GENEVA (Reuters) - The Yemeni government has proposed to the United Nations that it monitors the rebel-held port of Hodeidah to ensure that no arms are smuggled through it, the prime minister said on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: Ships are unloaded at the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Yemen November 16, 2016. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah/File Photo

A Saudi-led military coalition backing the internationally-recognized government in its war against the Houthi rebels has been preparing an assault on Hodeidah.

U.N. officials and a Russian deputy foreign minister on Tuesday warned against any attack on the Red Sea port, the aid lifeline for a country where millions of people are in desperate need of food to avert famine.

The alliance maintains a near-blockade of Yemen’s ports, including Hodeidah, where most cranes have been destroyed by coalition air strikes.

Prime Minister Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr repeated allegations that the Iran-aligned Houthis are smuggling weapons into Yemen through Hodeidah and said his government has proposed that the United Nations supervise the port to head off a possible attack.

He told Reuters in Geneva: “This port has been developed for receiving weapons for the militias. We are taking decisions to finalize what is going on. We don’t prefer using force there.

“So it’s us who proposed to the United Nations to operate the port and to impose monitoring on the port.”

The government had discussed this with U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres at a conference of aid donors held to address the humanitarian crisis brought on by the war.

“But we didn’t receive a clear answer on this matter,” he said.

A U.N. spokeswoman in Geneva had no immediate information.

The United Nations says two-thirds of Yemen’s 26 million people need assistance to avert famine.

The world body announced pledges of $1.1 billion towards its $2.1 billion humanitarian appeal for Yemen this year after the conference held on Tuesday.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which stopped using Hodeidah port in February, is bringing supplies by sea from Oman to Aden and “testing” land routes from Oman, ICRC regional director Robert Mardini told Reuters on Wednesday.

It has coalition permission to fly supplies into Sanaa airport, closed to commercial flights, he said. The government is based in Aden while the Houthis hold the capital Sanaa.

The ICRC is supporting Al-Mansoura hospital in Aden, which has treated 5,000 critically wounded people so far this year, and is sending a surgical team to expand capacity, Mardini said.

Bin Daghr said the Houthis were holding nearly 3,000 detainees, including journalists and activists, and that the government wanted independent monitoring of their conditions.

The ICRC is seeking access from both sides to allow it to visit detainees held in connection with the conflict.

“We are getting many requests from families,” Mardini said. “We have some worrying reports.”

But both sides have demanded that the other side first allow ICRC to see its detainees, he said.

(Story corrects airport in fourteenth para where ICRC flying supplies to Sanaa not Aden.)

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Angus MacSwan