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Yemen fighters urged to let aid through

Yemeni government forces and their rebel enemies have been urged by the UN allow more aid to reach those displaced by fighting in the country's north.

NEW YORK // The UN's emergency relief co-ordinator, Sir John Holmes, has urged Yemeni government forces and their rebel enemies to allow more aid to reach those displaced by fighting in the country's north. At the start of a four-day mission, Sir John, who is also the UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, said he would discuss whether Saudi Arabia should permit Yemeni refugees to flee for safety across its southern border.

His trip, which begins today, includes a visit to a refugee camp and talks with Yemeni ministers. UN officials say Sir John will avoid broaching sensitive issues in the conflict. "The main focus of my visit will be - how we can ensure better access for the humanitarian agencies - UN agencies, NGOs, Red Cross, Red Crescent - to people who are trapped in the areas where hostilities are continuing," he said on Tuesday.

"This is a major problem and there are hostilities continuing and there are roadblocks; there are curfews and therefore access is proving extremely difficult." Aid workers are unable to reach to many of the 150,000 civilians displaced after the latest bout of fighting between government troops and al Houthi rebels in a five-year-old sectarian conflict, Sir John said. The Houthis are Zaidis, members of a Shiite sect fighting what it has branded an oppressive, Sunni-dominated central government.

The New York-based pressure group Human Rights Watch (HRW) accuses both sides of violating laws of war by failing to protect civilians on the battlefield since fighting intensified around Sa'ada in August. The UN's human rights commissioner, Navi Pillay, said an air raid on a makeshift refugee camp that killed more than 80 civilians last month was "deeply disturbing" and urged Yemeni officials to investigate. Mr Holmes, although not scheduled to meet any Zaidi rebels, called for "co-operation from both sides, the government and the Houthi rebels", to ensure aid flows. Shiites make up 30 per cent of Yemen's population of 22 million, but are concentrated in the north, where conflict has killed unknown numbers and crammed tens of thousands of the newly displaced into camps, schools, barns and even under bridges.

HRW said displaced civilians desperately need food, water, shelter and medicines, with many suffering from diarrhoea and other conditions after trudging in soaring temperatures across the country's rugged north, an area devastated by the fighting. Joe Stork, the agency's Middle East director, said: "Fighting and government restrictions means tens of thousands of civilians in northern Yemen are cut off from help that they desperately need. The government needs to help aid agencies reach civilians, not throw up obstacles in their way."

Such complaints echoed the concerns of Amnesty International, which has reported that Saudi border guards turned away Yemeni refugees who headed towards the border after fleeing fighting around Sa'ada. Saudi officials have opened their border to aid lorries delivering supplies to the battlefields, but campaigners say they should also offer refuge to Yemenis escaping violence in fear for their lives.

Malcolm Smart, Amnesty's regional director, has said the border is "the only way to get out of the firing line" for many Yemenis and that Saudi guards "must not force the return of any people seeking safe haven". Sir John lauded "good co-operation from the Saudi government" to allow aid deliveries and, although he is not scheduled to meet any Saudi officials, he said the refugee issue will come up during his visit.

Although HRW said forcibly returning refugees to a perilous battlefield violates global humanitarian rules, Sir John said he was "not sure about the exact legal position about whether they are violating international law". Analysts claim the Houthis finance their rebellion with Iranian cash, and Saudi Arabia is similarly accused of supplying the government, indicating the fighting is a proxy confrontation between Riyadh and Tehran.

This latest uprising adds to the woes of the Arab world's poorest country, where a weak central government struggles against southern secessionists, an influx of al Qa'eda militants, water shortages and plummeting oil revenues. In a paper for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Christopher Boucek warned that Yemen could collapse and become a breeding ground for terrorists, threatening to destabilise Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states,.

The UN recently appealed for US$23.7 million (Dh87m) to assist Yemeni refugees and urged oil-rich members of the Gulf Co-operation Council to bail out their ailing neighbour. As of yesterday, the appeal had only received about $1.5m, predominantly from western donors, although Saudi Arabia has pledged to give $1m. jreinl@thenational.ae

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