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U.N. urges truce in Yemen fighting to deliver aid

SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen’s government and Shi’ite rebels in the north should suspend fighting to allow the United Nations to deliver aid to refugees, a top U.N. official said on Sunday after a delayed aid convoy arrived from Saudi Arabia.

U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes told reporters he had asked for a “ceasefire ... on humanitarian” grounds during a meeting with Yemeni officials in the Arabian Peninsula country, one of the world’s poorest nations outside Africa.

Aid agencies are warning of a humanitarian crisis in northern Yemen, where up to an estimated 150,000 people have fled their homes since Shi’ite rebels launched the insurgency in 2004. Limited access to the war zone means they have no clear idea of exactly how many have fled.

Zaydi Shi’ite Muslim rebels say they suffer religious discrimination by Sunni hardliners who have gained ground due to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s close ties to Saudi Arabia which adheres to a puritanical form of Sunni Islam.

The United States and Saudi Arabia fear the fighting in northern Yemen, and street clashes with separatists in the south, could create instability that al Qaeda could exploit to attack Saudi Arabia.

The U.N. convoy, delayed by fighting between the rebels and government forces, crossed into Yemen from Saudi on Sunday.

The three-truck convoy carried 200 tents, blankets and mattresses to about 300 refugees stranded in the Yemeni province of Saada which has seen heavy fighting since the army launched a major offensive on Aug. 11.

“We hope to have more convoys,” said Sultan Khilji, the convoy’s U.N. protection officer, adding that up to 5,000 people were stranded in the northern border region.

Holmes urged both sides of the conflict to avoid harming civilians and uphold the rights of people in the conflict area.

The U.N. refugee agency said on Friday it would send aid to northern Yemen from Saudi Arabia for the first time but the convoy had been delayed for security clearance.

It crossed the frontier at Alb, about 20 km (12 miles) north of the area of Baqim, the scene of fierce clashes.

Zaydis make up about a third of Yemen’s population of about 23 million people. The majority of Yemenis are Sunni Muslims.

Additional reporting by Ulf Laessing and Mohamed Ghobari; Editing by Alison Williams