Blocking of delivery lorries seen as an attempt to deter advancing government forces
Yemen's Houthi rebels cut off food supplies for Hodeidah residents
Yemen's Houthi rebels are stopping food deliveries from reaching residents of Hodeidah in what is seen as a desperate attempt to ward off a government offensive to retake the vital port city.
Dozens of lorries bringing flour from the two ports and government-held areas of Hodeidah province have been prevented from the entering the city in recent days, residents told The National.
The lorries are stranded in the Kilo 8 area of the road leading into the city, where the Houthis have set up concrete barriers and planted landmines, residents said.
One resident said the rebels were also disrupting flour production at the Red Sea Mills in the Kilo 10 area by preventing employees from going to work.
The resulting shortage has pushed up the price of a sack of flour in Hodeidah to 12,000 riyals (about Dh180) from 8,000 earlier. Even so, there was a scramble to buy flour from a lorry that managed to enter the city on Wednesday by travelling along secondary roads.
The Houthi actions comes as government forces close in on the city after seizing control of much of the surrounding province. The campaign is backed by the Saudi-led military coalition allied to the government, which is supporting the ground offensive with air strikes. Government troops recently seized the Kilo 16 intersection on the road connecting Hodeidah to the rebel-held capital Sanaa, cutting off a vital supply route.
Adel Moukarshab, the relief affairs co-ordinator for the local authority in Hodeidah, said the Houthis were trying to create a food crisis in the city of 600,000 people to use as propaganda against the government offensive.
"The Houthi militia prevented many organisations coming to Hodeidah to deliver food from carrying out their humanitarian work. They also disrupt the operations of UN organisations in the city by targeting their offices or imposing strict conditions to let them work, forcing some organisations to suspend their activities in the city," Mr Moukarshab told The National.
"They looted many food stores of UN organisations and occupied warehouses of the World Food Programme and used them as hideouts for their soldiers and their military vehicles," said Abdulwahab Shoubail, a resident of Hodeidah who provides updates on the situation there through Facebook and WhatsApp.
This was confirmed by Yemeni Information Minister Moammer Al Eryani, who said the rebels had been hiding their fighters and armoured vehicles in UN food storage sites after retreating from the Kilo 16 area.
"I am surprised by the international silence on this. It is contrary to international law which states that international relief facilities should not be used as places of conflict and fighting," Mr Al Eryani wrote on Twitter last week.
Sameer Akhdhar, another resident who reports on Hodeidah through social media, said the Houthis were trying to turn international opinion against the coalition-backed offensive.
"The Houthis lost most of their power in Hodeidah. They have no military options so they are trying to push the city into famine to gain international sympathy and pressure the coalition to stop the military campaign to liberate the ports," Mr Akhdhar told The National.
Mr Akhdar and other activists said they feared the Houthis were also planning to bombard civilian areas with mortars and film the attacks to blame on the coalition.
"They kill the victim and cry over his body," said Mr Akhdhar.
Meanwhile, an outspoken critic of the Houthis was reported killed on Thursday, a day after he was arrested in Sanaa by the rebels' security forces.
Fellow social media activists said Mohammed Abdullah Al Oulaibi, 39, was murdered by the rebels because of a video posted on his Facebook page in which he accused the Houthis of dividing the Yemeni people and pushing the country to the brink of famine.
In the video, Al Oulaibi complains about the hard times and starvation that he and millions of Yemenis have experienced since the Houthis seized the capital in September 2014.
"Millions die silently behind the walls in Sanaa while the Houthis live in luxury and comfort. They looted the state institutions, cut our salaries and fired thousands of people from their jobs and replaced them with their followers," he says in the video.
Some reports said Al Oulaibi died while being tortured by the rebels, while others said he was executed.
"Al Oulaibi spoke on behalf of all the oppressed people in areas under Houthi control," Kamal Al Salami, a journalist from Sanaa, wrote on Twitter. "He was the bravest person in the capital, where the Houthis locked all mouths."