The Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen announced Wednesday it would allow some rebel-held ports to accept humanitarian aid.
The coalition, which supports the Yemeni government, said it would open the Sanaa airport and Hodeidah port. Saudi Arabia closed all airports and seaports in the country last week after a thwarted Houthi ballistic missile attack on Riyadh led to suspicion that Houthis were smuggling arms into Yemen.
The coalition reopened some government-controlled ports shortly after the move, but other closures restricted the delivery of aid. Yemen relies on imports for about 80 percent of its food.
The World Health Organization and United Nations last week called on Saudi Arabia to lift the blockade. WHO said Yemen is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, with more than 20 million people in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.
Paolo Cernuschi, the country director for the International Rescue Committee in Yemen, said the organizations could not celebrate what he described as the “partial easing of access restrictions.”
“Even though tomorrow’s reopening of ports to humanitarian traffic will ease the flow of aid, it will still leave the population of Yemen in a worse situation than they were two weeks ago before the blockade started,” he said. “Humanitarian aid alone cannot meet the needs of Yemenis who are unjustly bearing the brunt of this war.
“Access by commercial shipments of food and fuel must be resumed immediately, otherwise this action will do little to turn Yemen back from the brink of famine and crisis.”
Houthi rebels, who represent the country’s Zaidi Shiite Muslim minority, have fought the Yemeni government periodically since 2004. The conflict exploded in 2014 and 2015, though when rebels, along with supporters of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, entered the capital of Sanaa and forced President Abdu Rabbo Mansour Hadi to flee to the port city of Aden.
A coalition of eight Arab countries — mostly Sunni Muslims — took up the fight to restore Hadi to power. The United States, Britain and France also support the coalition.
The Hadi government controls much of eastern Yemen as well as the southern coast, including the second-largest city of Aden. Rebels control much of the northwest, including the capital and Hodeidah.
Though Iran has denied involvement in the conflict, the U.S. military said it intercepted a shipment of weapons from Iran headed to the Houthis.
The fighting has led to a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, where civilians are facing famine and disease.
“At least 14.8 million are without basic healthcare and an outbreak of cholera has resulted in more than 900,000 suspected cases,” WHO said earlier this month. “Some 17 million people do not know where their next meal is coming from and 7 million are totally dependent on food assistance. Severe acute malnutrition is threatening the lives of almost 400,000 children.”
The organization said a diphtheria epidemic is spreading through the country with 120 confirmed cases and 14 deaths in the past several weeks.
Jamie McGoldrick, U.N. Yemen Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, said northern Yemen has a three-week supply of vaccines, a 20-day supply of fuel and a 10-day supply of gasoline.
The British humanitarian charity Oxfam International warned in September that Yemen’s cholera outbreak could infect more than 1 million people by the end of the year. It cited WHO statistics indicating more than 745,000 suspected cases and more than 2,000 deaths in the country.
By Danielle Haynes