GENEVA (Reuters) - United Nations and Russian officials warned on Tuesday against any attack by Saudi-led coalition forces on the Houthi-held Yemeni port of Hodeidah, the aid lifeline for a country where millions of people are in desperate need of food.
The warring factions must ensure deliveries of food and medical aid to starving people, senior U.N. officials said at a donor conference in Geneva.
Nearly $1.1 billion has now been pledged towards a United Nations appeal of $2.1 billion for Yemen this year, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced, calling it a “remarkable success”.
“Across Yemen, hunger and malnutrition have reached unprecedented levels and the threat of famine looms large. The country is on the brink of catastrophe,” said David Beasley, executive director of the U.N.’s World Food Program.
The government, backed by Saudi Arabia and the West,
have been fighting the Houthi movement aligned with Iran for over two years in a war that has killed at least 10,000 people.
A Saudi-led military coalition is preparing an assault on Hodeidah, which lies on the Red Sea and is the point of entry for nearly 80 percent of Yemen’s food imports.
“The Hodeidah port is a critical lifeline,” Beasley told the conference. “Any disruption to the port would gravely hamper efforts to prevent famine.”
Yemeni officials said earlier this month the government and its allies had positioned two brigades for a possible attack, one of them 230 km (140 miles) north of Hodeidah and the other 130 km (80 miles) to the south.
But Yemeni Prime Minister Ahmed Obeid Bin Daghr, whose government is based in the southern port of Aden and controls only part of the country, said it would allow access for aid supplies and was “ready to open new corridors for this aid”.
Saudi-led air strikes have hampered humanitarian operations to import food and fuel supplies, the United Nations says. Five cranes in Hodeidah port have been destroyed, forcing dozens of ships to wait offshore for their turn to dock.
Jamie McGoldrick, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, said that mobile cranes brought to the port had a “quite small” capacity although some vessels had on-board cranes.
“We continue to advocate Hodeidah as the only sensible option because it’s expensive everywhere else. (Hodeidah is)effective and efficient,” he told Reuters.
The coalition has accused the Houthis of using the port to smuggle weapons and has tried to block ships from entering.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told the conference Moscow could not accept what he called a blockade.
“There are also worrying rumors about an assault on Hodeidah and then a move on (the capital) Sanaa; this is something we cannot allow to happen,” he said.
Guterres said nearly 19 million people, or two-thirds of Yemen’s population, needed emergency aid. One child under the age of five dies of preventable hunger and disease every 10 minutes, he said.
He renewed a call for peace talks and urged all parties to allow the unimpeded passage of humanitarian aid by air, sea and land. “All infrastructure must remain open and operational,” Guterres said.
Editing by Mark Heinrich