UN seeks urgent ceasefire to stop UAE assault on Yemeni port

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…As Doctors Without Borders halt activities in Yemeni town after strike***

The United Arab Emirates has given the UN less than 48 hours to try to negotiate a Houthi ceasefire at the strategic Red Sea port of Hodeidah before it mounts an attack on the port through which the bulk of food, medicine and gas to the rest of Yemen is distributed.

Urgent British-led efforts at the UN were under way to dissuade the United Arab Emirates and the Saudis from pressing ahead with the attack – or at least to give undertakings that it will not seek to starve Hodeidah into submission. Aid agencies have warned that an attack would have catastrophic consequences.

The UN security council met behind closed doors on Monday at the request of Britain to be briefed on the situation after heavy fighting erupted near the city on Friday and Saturday. The UAE has vowed it will take the port saying it is being used by Houthi rebels to smuggle in arms including missiles used to attack Saudi Arabia itself.

“We are, at the present moment, in intense consultation,” the UN’s secretary general, António Guterres, told reporters. “I hope that it will be possible to avoid a battle for Hodeidah.”

He said the UN’s Yemen envoy, Martin Griffiths, was shuttling between the capital of Yemen Sanaa and also the UAE and Saudi Arabia. One proposal is for the UN to take control of the port or the city.

After briefing the security council on Monday, UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told reporters that “if for any period Hodeidah were not to operate effectively the consequences in humanitarian terms would be catastrophic”.

“While the UN and other humanitarian agencies are reconfiguring their presence it’s also our planned intention though to stay and deliver. We have dozens of UN staff still in Hodeidah,” Lowcock added.

The UK’s Middle East minister, Alistair Burt, repeatedly urged the UAE not to mount an attack, but he told MPs in the Commons that it would only be a breach of international law if the attack was used as a matter of policy to attempt to starve the population.

Burt said: “The UN special envoy has previously expressed concern that conflicts in Hodeidah could take peace off the table ‘in a single stroke’. It is essential for him to be given the time that he needs to facilitate a negotiated solution that avoids conflict in the city and we support his efforts to do so.”

He urged the Houthis to respond to the entreaties in the next 48 hours saying “this will make a significant difference”.

But there was little sign that either the British or the Americans were willing to announce a halt to arms sales to Saudi or any other similar mark of disapproval of the Saudi assault. Burt argued that the Saudis saw the threat of an assault as a way of pressuring the Houthis to negotiate a peace deal.

The UN has warned the Saudi-led coalition that a military attack or siege on the city, long a target in the war, could lead to the displacement of 250,000 people.

The foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, at the weekend spoke to the Saudi foreign minister, al-Jubeir, the UAE foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed, as well as to Griffiths.

The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, made a similar round of calls, but Pompeo did not call for the attack not to go ahead. He simply said all sides should honour their commitments to the UN adding he had “made clear our desire to address their security concerns while preserving the free flow of humanitarian aid and life-saving commercial imports.”

In the meantime, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) halted its operations in a Northern Yemeni town after an alleged strike by a Saudi-led coalition hit one of their cholera treatment centres the non-profit medical group said.

In the early hours of Monday, an airstrike hit a newly constructed MSF cholera treatment centre in Yemen’s north-western town of Abs.

The centre is also very close to a 147-bed hospital that serves more than 1 million people, the group said.

No staff or patients were injured since the facility was empty.

“This morning’s attack on an MSF cholera treatment centre by the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition shows complete disrespect for medical facilities and patients.

“Whether intentional or a result of negligence, it is totally unacceptable,’’ João Martins, MSF’s Head of Mission in Yemen, said.

“MSF has temporarily frozen its activities in Abs until the safety of its staff and patients is guaranteed,’’ Martins added.

Yemen has been embroiled in a conflict between a Saudi-backed government and Iran-allied Houthi rebels since late 2014.

The feud intensified in March 2015, when the Houthis advanced on Aden, the temporary seat of the government, prompting Saudi Arabia and its allies to start an air campaign against the rebels.

The fighting has previously forced aid groups to stop working in some areas due to restrictions imposed by both parties.

MSF’s statement comes days after the International Committee of the Red Cross pulled 71 of its staffers out of Yemen due to security concerns.

Additional report from Guardian UK