UN official warns Yemen could face brink of famine again

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) — War-battered Yemen could face the threat of famine again because of the rapid depreciation of its currency and disruptions to salary payments, a senior U.N. humanitarian official warned the Security Council on Thursday.

At the same time, the U.N. special envoy for Yemen reported a major reduction in military operations and other initiatives that will hopefully lead to talks between the government and Iranian-backed Houthi Shiite rebels on ending the five-year conflict in the Arab world’s poorest nation.

Both Ramesh Rajasingham, head of the U.N. humanitarian office’s Coordination Division, and U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths stressed the volatility and fragility of the current situation in Yemen, especially following recent actions by the United States and Iran that raised tensions and fears of further military action in the Middle East.

Rajasingham said civilian fatalities were down by almost half in 2019 from 2018, “but it is still a very dangerous place.” He pointed to recent hostilities in several places.

Griffiths credited Yemen’s leaders and those in the region for exercising restraint during the U.S.-Iran crisis, saying it was remarakable there were “no major acts of military provocation in Yemen.""

It was one of the quietest weeks since the war began, with only one airstrike, very limited movement on the ground, and no missile or drone attacks on neighboring countries, he said.

The Yemen conflict began with the 2014 takeover of the capital, Sanaa, by the Houthis, who control much of the country's north. A Saudi-led coalition allied with the internationally recognized government has been fighting the Houthis since 2015.

The fighting has killed thousands of civilians and created the world's worst humanitarian crisis, leaving millions suffering from food and medical care shortages and pushing the country to the brink of famine last year.

Rajasingham told the council by video that despite difficulties delivering aid, the U.N. World Food Program and its partners are helping feed more than 12 million Yemenis every month.

He expressed hope that the warring parties, who reached agreement to allow 260,000 metric tons of desperately needed fuel into Yemen in December, can tackle the country's depreciating currency, the rial.

Rajasingham said the rial’s loss in value is at least partially due to a dispute over bank notes printed after 2016 that the Houthis banned for use in the north in mid-December. This led the government to announce that it could not pay civil servants and retirees in the north, which means about a quarter of Yemen's population who rely on these payments are getting no money, he said.

With the rapidly depreciating rial, “we are again seeing some of the key conditions that brought Yemen to the brink of famine a year ago,” Rajasingham said.

Griffiths, the U.N. envoy, said the air war was remarkably reduced by 80% in November and “it is even more remarkable now that it has been sustained and improved.”

“This is an opportunity to encourage the parties to continue and sustain the military de-escalation, which is very fragile” he said.

It is also an opportunity to support implementation of a power-sharing deal brokered by Saudi Arabia in November that ended months of infighting with separatists in southern Yemen and the December 2018 cease-fire and redeployment of forces agreement at Yemen’s major port in Hodeida, he said.

Griffiths expressed hope an agreement can be reached “in the coming weeks” on a road map for opening humanitarian corridors in Hodeida. This would improve aid deliveries, access for civilians, and pave the way for discussions on the redeployment of forces, he said.

He said each “positive step" brings the launch of political consultations closer, with the goal of keeping the promise to Yemen’s people “that this year they may see the peace they so evidently deserve.”

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