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UN calls for ‘humanitarian pause’ in Yemen as conditions in capital deteriorate

Ralph El Hage/ICRC

Conditions for civilians in Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a are “deteriorating by the hour” after six days of violence, the International Committee for the Red Cross said Monday, as the United Nations called for a “humanitarian pause” in the fighting.

The heavy fighting came as the UN, along with other relief agencies, Friday launched a humanitarian funding appeal for Yemen, seeking $2.5 billion for 2018 to meet the needs of 10.8 million Yemenis. The document, drafted before the latest events, said violence against civilians was already causing “unspeakable suffering.”

Monday saw a dramatic change in the more than two year conflict as former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who until several days ago had been allied with Houthi rebels, was reportedly killed, according to Houthi media. Unverified images and video circulated on social media of what appeared to be Saleh’s body with a severe head wound.

The increasingly uneasy Saleh-Houthi alliance has been fighting a Saudi Arabia-led coalition and forces loyal to internationally recognised (but deposed) President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi since March 2015, but Saleh appeared to have switched sides in recent days, offering in a speech to talk with his former enemies.

But days of clashes that began before Saleh’s offer, in addition to airstrikes Riyadh said were to aid the former president against the Houthis, have reportedly left civilians trapped in their homes, unable to seek help, move to safer locations or get out to buy food and water. Most aid workers in the city are trapped too and unable to venture out.  

The ICRC said in a statement that 125 people had been killed and 238 wounded in the latest round of violence, adding that “the targeting of our main medical warehouse by the fighting is hampering our work.” The ICRC is supporting medical teams in Sana’a’s hospitals.

Jamie McGoldrick, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, called for a six hour “humanitarian pause” on Tuesday, 5 December, “to allow civilians to leave their homes and seek assistance and protection and to facilitate the movement of aid workers.”

“The wounded must be afforded safe access to medical care,” he said in a Monday statement.

A humanitarian pause is different from a ceasefire: the UN’s emergency aid coordination body defines it as “a temporary cessation of hostilities purely for humanitarian purposes. Requiring the agreement of all relevant parties, it is usually for a defined period and specific geographic area where the humanitarian activities are to be carried out.”

There have been multiple calls for humanitarian pauses in Yemen’s war, with varying degrees of success. Aid workers said a May 2015 break in the fighting allowed for the distribution of some supplies but was not enough to make a real difference.

More than two years later, with more than 5,350 civilians (and counting) killed in violence, 2,223 Yemenis dead of cholera since April, and warnings of famine, the situation is much worse. The UN says Yemen is the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe and while a coalition blockade on aid (ostensibly to prevent arms smuggling) has been eased, the majority of commercial ships are still not being allowed into the country’s Red Sea ports.

Given the massive scale of Yemen's humanitarian crisis, however, all this does is slow the collapse towards a massive humanitarian tragedy costing millions of lives. It does not prevent it,” said leaders of several UN agencies on Saturday. “Without the urgent resumption of commercial imports, especially food, fuel and medicines, millions of children, women and men risk mass hunger, disease and death.”

One international aid worker in Sana’a contacted by IRIN was sheltering in a strong room and said “it’s terrible” and “the game is changing for the worse... the longer the fighting lasts, the more severe and tragic the consequences.”

(TOP PHOTO: Treatment at a cholera ward in Sana'a, at the height of the epidemic in May. Ralph El Hage/ICRC)


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