Yemen (Reuters) – The United Nations said on Friday it was ready to help supervise Yemen’s vital Hodeidah port to protect it from “potential destruction”, as its envoy met managers of the Houthi-held harbour.
Western countries are pressing for a ceasefire and renewed peace efforts to end the country’s three-year-old conflict amid fears that half the population, some 14 million people, could soon be on the brink of famine.
“We discussed … how the United Nations can take a leading role in operating the port, we have to do this quickly through discussions with all the parties,” U.N. envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, said after his meetings.
“We think that by playing this role we would help preserve a lifeline to the people in Yemen,” he said, according to an Arabic translation of his remarks which was supplied to local reporters.
U.N. spokesman Rheal LeBlanc told reporters earlier in Geneva that Griffiths had specific ideas about managing the port that he would present to the parties to the conflict.
The aim was to “protect the port itself from potential destruction, and preserve the main humanitarian pipeline to the people of Yemen,” LeBlanc said.
Griffiths arrived earlier in the day in Hodeidah, the latest focus of the war between the Houthi group, which controls the city, and pro-government forces backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The port is an important supply line to the Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa, located in mountains to the northeast of Hodeidah, and to much of the country.
Griffiths told the U.N. Security Council last week that Yemen’s warring sides had given “firm assurances” they were committed to attending peace talks he hopes to convene in Sweden in December.
LeBlanc said Griffiths wanted a halt to the recent escalation in fighting around Hodeidah in order to “create a conducive environment” for the Sweden consultations.
Griffiths visited Sanaa on Thursday to talk to Houthi leaders about their attendance in Sweden.
The Saudi-led, Western-backed coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015 to restore the internationally-recognised government ousted from Sanaa in 2014 by the Houthis.
The death toll from a conflict seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran is big but unknown. In 2016 the United Nations said 10,000 civilians had been killed in the fighting itself.
An estimated 85,000 children under five may have starved to death in Yemen since 2015, Save the Children said on Thursday.
Almost half of Yemen’s children are chronically malnourished, which can stunt their growth, World Health Organisation spokesman Christian Lindmeier told reporters on Friday.
“Thousands of under-nourished people are dying of diarrhoea, pneumonia and measles,” he added.
The U.N.’s World Food Programme said that on Friday it completed food distribution to 180,000 people, or about 30,000 families, in Hodeidah city, reducing the danger they would have faced if they had to travel to get supplies.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and staff in Yemen; writing by Maher Chmaytelli; editing by Andrew Roche)