UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United States has told the United Nations that it wants commercial shipping to conflict-torn Yemen to increase and cautioned that vessels should only be inspected when there are “reasonable grounds” to suspect illicit arms shipments.
The remarks from U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, seen by Reuters on Wednesday, appeared to be an indirect dig at Saudi Arabia, whose coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen has been running naval inspections that have caused shipping to Yemen to grind to a halt.
“We recognize that U.N. agencies and other humanitarian organizations need to freely import humanitarian assistance through Yemen’s seaports and airports and pursue needs-based distribution,” Power said in the letter, dated Sept. 28.
She said that President Barack Obama and Saudi King Salman both agreed to “fully support and enable the U.N.-led humanitarian relief efforts” in Yemen, and that the Saudi leader has pledged that Riyadh would allow “unfettered access” to all forms of humanitarian aid, including fuel.
Power added that the United States was offering an additional $89 million in humanitarian aid for Yemen, raising the total U.S. aid commitment for the crisis to $170 million.
“We ... anticipate increased commercial activity in the future, with inspections occurring only when there are reasonable grounds to believe a vessel is carrying arms,” she said. “This will be critical to restoring the vital imports that provide the bulk of the country’s food, fuel and other life-sustaining supplies.”
Before Saudi Arabia and Arab allies intervened in March to try to restore Yemen’s president to power and roll back the Iranian-allied Houthi militia, Yemen imported more than 90 percent of its food, mostly by sea.
Since then, many shipping companies have pulled out. Those still willing to bring cargo to Yemen face incalculable delays and searches by coalition warships hunting for arms for the Houthis. The point of a new U.N. inspection regime, announced earlier this month but not yet up and running, is to increase the flow of goods into the country.
Western officials have complained privately for months that the Saudis have been making the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen worse with their naval inspections and appear determined to press ahead with military action at all costs.
U.N. officials have repeatedly warned that the Yemen humanitarian crisis was escalating dramatically.
Power said Washington supports the U.N. Security Council’s call “for all sides in the conflict in Yemen to comply with international law and take all feasible precautious to minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects.”
Reporting by Louis Charbonneau