x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

UN officials praise reopening of aid office in Yemen

Thousands of civil war refugees in 'urgent need' as the UN has registered some 250,000 displaced Yemenis across the three provinces.

NEW YORK // The UN chiefs have praised the opening of an aid office in bullet-ridden Sa'ada city as a chance to get much-needed supplies to the thousands of people left destitute by north Yemen's six-year-old civil war. Yemeni officials allowed the UN to open the relief office on Thursday, more than one month after the ceasefire signalled an end to recurrent fighting against a disgruntled group of Shia rebels, known as al Houthis.

Ahead of the inaugural two-day meeting of the Friends of Yemen group in Abu Dhabi on Monday, campaigners warned that it remains "premature to speak of stability" in the Arab world's poorest nation. Aboudou Adjibadé, the UN's aid chief in Yemen, said opening the multi-agency office in Sa'ada city would allow aid deliveries to some suffering civilians but warned that many others will not benefit. The office has been closed since fighting intensified in August.

"There is an urgent need for humanitarian relief in Sa'ada," he said. "Our paramount concern is securing unhindered and immediate access to the affected people. We welcome the fact that we can now re-establish a UN office in Sa'ada but we continue to call for access to the entire Sa'ada governorate." Aid workers say insecurity and unexploded landmines hamper deliveries to parts of Sa'ada province and the nearby regions of Al Jawf and Amran, which also saw combat between government and rebel forces.

The UN has registered some 250,000 displaced Yemenis across the three provinces as well as parts of Sana'a and Hajjah, although government officials estimate a further 100,000 were forced to flee their homes. About one tenth live in displacement camps while the remainder are hosted by friends and relatives across the mountainous north. Sa'ada city hosts about 22,000 of the displaced, including about 4,500 in six overcrowded camps run by the Yemeni Red Crescent.

The UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, said some families uprooted by the fighting have begun returning to Sa'ada city, where shops are opening, water and electricity supplies are improving and some schools have reopened. "Most internally displaced persons are reluctant to return mainly for security reasons," said Andrej Mahecic, a UNHCR spokesman. "In general, people are cautious and want to be reassured that peace will last. They also fear mines and unexploded ordnance still littering parts of Sa'ada which were affected by the fighting. Their concerns are reinforced by reports of fatal incidents from mines and unexploded ordnance in several Sa'ada districts."

Returning from a mission to Sa'ada city, the World Food Programme's Gian Carlo Cirri praised aid workers who braved the battlefields and helped "thousands of people during the war and saved hundreds of lives". A ceasefire announced on February 11 ended the sixth round of fighting between government and rebel forces since 2004, in which the Houthis accused the government of sidelining members of their minority Zaidi Shia Islamic sect.

Earlier this month, the rebels were reported to have released 178 civilians and government soldiers under the terms of a peace deal that also required them to open up roads and withdraw from government buildings and army posts. Christoph Wilcke, a regional expert for Human Rights Watch, said the aid office was "good news" for Sa'ada city residents but urged the UN to push Yemeni officials harder for access to the wider region.

Ahead of the 20-nation forum of aid donors, Mr Wilcke's New York-based pressure group urged delegates to make pledges contingent on Yemeni officials addressing human rights concerns and enhancing the country's justice system. On April 7, the group will release a report alleging violations of the laws of war committed by government and rebel forces. @Email:jreinl@thenational.ae