x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Aid groups say access restricted in Yemen

Security concerns in affected areas continue to restrict aid to those who need it, international agencies say.

SANA'A // Despite a declaration in mid-July ending the war between government troops and al Houthi rebels in the northern governorate of Sa'ada, security concerns in the affected areas continue to restrict aid to those who need it, international agencies say. "There are certain areas we have not been able to access for different reasons, mainly security. We are contacting the authority and other concerned entities in order to reach these areas," said Rabab al Rifai, communications officer at the International Commission for the Red Cross in Sana'a. "We do believe there are other needs in areas to the north and east of Sa'ada and surrounding areas, mainly during winter time where the already dire situation resulting from years of conflict is being made worse by dropping temperatures." Ms Rifai said ICRC has been working in Sa'ada in co-operation with the Yemeni society for the Red Crescent since 2004 and enhanced its presence in 2007, but is still looking for access to certain areas to assess peoples' needs. She said four camps in Sa'ada were trying to accommodate nearly 7,000 displaced people who cannot return to their homes. Many more are staying with host families. The ICRC is providing them with food, essential household items, clean water and medical care. Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Yemeni president, declared on July 17 an end to the conflict. But the US-based non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch said the government continued to limit the access of humanitarian agencies to all affected areas. "The government imposed a restricted non-transparent policy of limiting access of aid to people who have long gone without assistance and who remain at risk," said Joe Stork, the deputy director of HRW's Middle East division. "This policy, which is still there until today even after the war was declared over, is very generalised and has no specific security rationale and is against international humanitarian law," Mr Stork said at a news conference in Sana'a on Wednesday where he was launching a HRW report on Yemen titled Invisible civilians: the challenge of humanitarian access in Yemen's forgotten war. The report criticised bureaucratic obstacles to aid deployment, citing the need to obtain permission from the interior ministry for every excursion to affected areas. It said access to those at risk in marginal areas was insufficient and called on the government and the al Houthi rebels to take immediate steps to ensure that humanitarian agencies have safe, reliable and sustained access to all parts of Sa'ada to assist civilians in need of assistance. Government officials declined to comment on the report. Five rounds of conflict between government and rebel forces has left tens of thousands of people homeless with thousands reportedly killed in fighting. The UN estimated in June that the conflict had displaced 130,000 people throughout the country. The al Houthi rebels have been fighting to restore the Zaidi imamate, which was overthrown in a 1962 revolution. They reject the government of Mr Saleh and have branded it illegitimate, even though Mr Saleh is himself a Zaidi. While 23 per cent of Yemenis are Zaidis, many of them, especially those outside of the religious elite, reject the idea of reviving the imamate, as do Yemen's Sunni majority. Mr Saleh has blamed Hussein al Houthi, the late rebel leader and a former member of parliament for the defunct Zaidi party, Hizb al Haqq, of fomenting sectarian strife through his militant organisation al Shabab al Mum'en (the Believing Youth). Mr Saleh said last week his government is committed to peace and reconstruction in Sa'ada but on the condition the rebels leave schools and hospitals, which Mr Saleh alleges they control. However, the office of Abdulmalik al Houthi, the rebel leader, denied the group was controlling such institutions and said the allegations were being used by the government as an excuse to neglect its duties. "What the president said about the schools being closed and under our control is not true. We consider this statement the disownment of [government's] commitment to reconstruction," his office said in a press statement. The exchange of accusations and unrest on the ground has raised concerns that a new round of fighting is imminent. "All the people we met including government officials are concerned that a sixth round of fighting is likely to break out," said Mr Stork of HRW. "Even the donors said to us that they consider Sa'ada is in a state of conflict, which means they are not prepared to provide any support to government or help reconstruction." The war has caused the destruction of 6,033 houses and 1,300 farms in Harf Sefian in Amran province, 100km north of Sana'a, to where the conflict spread during the fifth and latest round, said Mohammed Abdullah Thabet, executive manager of the Sa'ada Reconstruction Fund. "It is estimated we need $200 million dollars [Dh734m] for reconstruction and another $500 million for channelling development into these areas which have been deprived during the conflict," he said. malqadhi@thenational.ae