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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Coalition promises to protect Yemen aid workers

Houthi rebels condemned for threats after Red Cross announces withdrawal of foreign staff

Col Turki Al Malki, spokesman for the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen, assured aid agencies of their safety on June 8, 2018. Fayez Nureldine / AFP
Col Turki Al Malki, spokesman for the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen, assured aid agencies of their safety on June 8, 2018. Fayez Nureldine / AFP

The Saudi-led coalition battling Yemen's Houthi rebels on Friday pledged to ensure the safety of humanitarian workers in the country after the International Committee of the Red Cross said it had withdrawn dozens of staff members over security fears.

The coalition said it was concerned by the ICRC's announcement on Thursday that it had taken 71 foreign workers out of Yemen to ensure their safety.

"The coalition has and will always uphold the highest standards to protect civilians, and provide necessary protection for UN-affiliated organisations as well as INGOs working in humanitarian aid and relief tracks," coalition spokesman Colonel Turki Al Malki said, in a statement reported by Saudi Press Agency.

The coalition condemned the Iran-backed rebels for threats against civilians and international relief workers, and warned that it would hold them accountable for any deterioration in the security and humanitarian situation in areas under their control.

Col Al Malki said the coalition was working with international NGO partners to create conditions for them to work safely and freely in Yemen and was fully prepared to assist the ICRC to ensure the continuation of its operations in the country.

The ICRC said its decision to move some staff from Yemen to Djibouti came after its activities were "blocked, threatened and directly targeted in recent weeks" and "a vigorous attempt to instrumentalise our organisation as a pawn in the conflict".

"While the Yemen delegation has received numerous threats in the past, we cannot now accept additional risk less than two months after a gunman killed a staff member," the organisation said, referring to the killing of a Lebanese employee in Yemen's southern city of Taez in April.

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A Red Cross spokeswoman said those withdrawn represented more than half of the ICRC's international staff in Yemen, but the organisation still had 452 workers in the country, including Yemeni citizens.

The decision comes at a crucial time in the three-year-old war. Government forces backed by the coalition, which intervened in the conflict at the government's request in March 2015, are poised to retake the key port city of Hodeidah from the rebels. However, there are fears that a battle for the city would create further civilian suffering and affect the flow of much-needed humanitarian supplies into the country, most of which passes through the Red Sea port.

"A military attack or siege on Hodeidah will impact hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians," the UN humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, Lise Grande, said on Friday.

"In a prolonged worst case, we fear that as many as 250,000 people may lose everything — even their lives."

The UN envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, is preparing to unveil a peace plan later this month that is expected to seek a halt to all fighting before discussions on a long-term political solution.

The United Nations has said it had no plans to evacuate aid staff. "We can confirm that UN international and national staff remain in place in Yemen, including in all five active field hubs (Aden, Hodeidah, Ibb, Saada and Sanaa)," said Jens Laerke of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.