NEW YORK // UN aid workers have gained access to more than 3,000 displaced Yemenis seeking refuge near the border with Saudi Arabia, describing the people there as in a desperate situation"after fleeing battlefields further south. Staff of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) were expected to distribute tents, mattresses, blankets and other relief items this week to those displaced by fighting between government forces and Shiite rebels in northern Yemen.
Saudi Arabia recently agreed to open its southern border to grant aid workers access to the displaced people, after criticism by human rights groups that it had turned away fleeing Yemeni civilians. "The arrival of UNHCR's aid would not have been possible without the close collaboration between the Saudi and Yemeni authorities and UNHCR," a UN spokesman said in Geneva on Tuesday. "According to a recent government assessment, there are between 3,000 and 4,000 displaced people in the border area, most of them in need of assistance and in a desperate situation after fleeing from the northern districts of Sa'ada province."
The UNHCR hopes to send a second convoy "very soon" to the displaced civilians, whose camp is near Alb, the spokesman said. The UN's humanitarian-aid director, John Holmes, who finished a three-day visit on Sunday, called for the protection of the displaced, pointing out that women and children accounted for 80 per cent of the most vulnerable. The UN estimates that 150,000 Yemenis have been displaced during several bouts of fighting over the past five years, including about 55,000 since the government launched its offensive.
The rebels, known alternately as Zaidi, after the sect of Shia Islam they follow, or as al Houthi, after their tribe, said yesterday that they were ready to open corridors for the tens of thousands of civilians displaced by the conflict. "We are prepared to open corridors and to secure routes linking the camps" for the displaced, they said in a statement posted on the internet. But the corridors should be put "directly under the control of the United Nations, with a guarantee that the authorities do not use them to send in reinforcements" for Yemeni troops.
The conflict has killed thousands over the past five years, though this number is hard to confirm. Fighting between government forces and the rebels shows no sign of abating. Street battles persist in and around Sa'ada and civilians continue to escape across the mountainous north. Yet the president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, told reporters in the capital, Sana'a, yesterday that the Yemeni army is close to winning the war. "It will be finished in days," he said.
Aboudou Karimou Adjibadé, a Yemen-based envoy for Unicef, said thousands of displaced schoolchildren "have had very limited access to safe water, food and hygiene in weeks. Malnutrition levels are on the rise and children are facing serious threats to their well-being and even lives". firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Bloomberg