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Yemen risks worst famine on planet in 'decades', says UN officials

Tens of thousands more civilians could be displaced due to attacks by Houthi rebels in Marib province

Pro-Houthi soldiers on patrol in Sana’a, Yemen, on Wednesday. Photograph: Yahya Arhab/EPA

The conflict in Yemen has taken a “sharp escalatory turn” and the country is speeding towards the worst famine the world has seen in decades, UN officials have warned, as the US under Joe Biden takes a renewed interest in finding a diplomatic solution to the war.

In one of his more downbeat monthly assessments, the UN special envoy Martin Griffiths told the security council attacks by the Houthi rebels in Marib province were threatening to displace tens of thousands of civilians, many of whom had fled to the region to escape fighting elsewhere in Yemen.

One million people are thought to have fled to the province’s relative safety since 2015, raising the city’s population from a previous 400,000.

Marib is controlled by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and is strategically important due to its gas and oil reserves. Until now it had been seen as a relative preserve of stability and prosperity. Its capture would be a significant victory for the Houthis, and as long as the fate of Marib city is in play it is unlikely that the Houthis will return to talks.

Griffiths said the military situation was the most tense in the country since he became envoy and that “the centre of gravity now lay in the battle for Marib that was already robbing young people of their lives”.

Four missiles have landed in Marib city in the last 10 days, killing three civilians. “The attack on Marib must stop now,” Griffiths said. “It is putting millions at risk with the fighting threatening to reach the camps of internally displaced persons. The search for territorial gain by force threatens the entire peace process.”

He also called on the Yemen government to permit the entry of fuel ships into the ports of Hodeidah to prevent fuel shortages starting to exacerbate the threat of famine in the north.

He said the renewed US interest in Yemen opened a space for a UN-overseen Yemeni-led negotiated solution, and that solution should be marked by accountable government and economic justice, ending with national elections. That required a nationwide ceasefire, humanitarian measures allowing the unhindered flow of oil, the payment of civil service salaries and the opening up to international traffic of the airport of Sana’a airport.

But Griffiths said he had been discussing these issues for a year, and what was needed was simply the political will to “end the relentless cycle of violence”. “No one can force the warring parties to peace unless they choose dialogue and put weapons aside. The responsibility to end the war is the responsibility of the parties, and it is the responsibility that I hope they bear now.”

Griffiths made no mention of his recent visit to Tehran, suggesting his hopes of persuading Iran to use its influence on the Houthis did not bear fruit. The only light appears to be the resumption of prisoner swap negotiations in January.

Mark Lowcock, the UN’s coordinator for humanitarian affairs, said: “We are running out of time. Malnutrition rates are at record highs, and 400,000 children are severely malnourished, and as a result are in their last weeks and months. Across Yemen 16 million people are going hungry, including 5 million who are just one step away from famine.”

He said unacceptable issues of humanitarian access continue with Houthi forces regularly delaying aid convoys and routinely harassing aid staff.

The size of Yemen’s economy had shrunk by half and the value of the Yemeni riyal against the dollar had fallen to a quarter of its value five years ago. A months-long dispute about the distribution of oil revenues between the Houthis and Hadi government had meant 13 oil ships were still waiting for permission to dock outside Hodeidah port, with each ship waiting on average every 75 days before being allowed into port.

© 2021 Guardian News & Media Limited or its affiliated companies.

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