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Little hope for peace in Yemen’s Hodeida

Civil war has created one of worst humanitarian crises recently

By AFP - Feb 27,2019 - Last updated at Feb 27,2019

A woman prepares food near a hut in an improvised camp for internally displaced people near Abs of the northwestern province of Hajja, Yemen, on February 18 (Reuters photo)

HODEIDA, Yemen — War-weary residents of the flashpoint Yemeni port city of Hodeida have little hope of peace even as the UN regains control of vital food aid warehouses on the front lines.

The United Nations has since September been unable to reach the Red Sea Mills — carrying grain estimated to feed 3.7 million people for a month — in a government-controlled area near the city, just metres away from where the Houthi rebels are stationed.

The mission on Tuesday came after an agreement struck on February 17, in which the sides in Yemen's conflict agreed to redeploy their fighters outside the ports and away from areas crucial to the humanitarian relief effort.

The ports are in the Houthi-held west of the country, and the agreement especially set out free access to the grain warehouses at Red Sea Mills, under the control of the Saudi-backed government forces.

On Wednesday, however, the streets of the city were empty amid rising tension as gunfire was heard overnight coming from the south, residents said.

"There is no hope as long as we can hear the sound of gunfire," said 26-year-old Eman, a Hodeida resident.


 Stop and search 


The Houthi rebels — which took control of the lifeline port of Hodeida in 2014 — were stopping pedestrians as well as motorists and searching their vehicles, another resident said on Wednesday.

Since a ceasefire went into effect on December 18, there have been intermittent clashes between the Iran-aligned rebels and the government — backed by a Saudi-led military coalition.

The two parties continuously accuse each other of violating the truce.

Hani, a bus driver in the city, said he did not expect the situation to change any time soon.

"I expect that the humanitarian situation will change a little and aid will reach some citizens, but I don't think there will be major change to the current situation," said the 40-year-old.

"The fighting never stopped in the first place."

The conflict has created what the UN describes as the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with around 24 million Yemenis — more than three quarters of the country's population — now dependent on some form of aid for survival.

Ten million are one step away from famine, according to the UN.

The UN's World Food Programme(WFP) said on Wednesday that access to the Red Sea Mills was "a great first step", adding that samples of the wheat were sent to labs to test the quality.

"The wheat is infested with weevil, which is something we anticipated. We need to fumigate the wheat," said Herve Verhoosel, a WFP spokesman, in a statement.


 ‘Failed step’ 


On Tuesday, a convoy of white vehicles carrying a WFP team to assess the wheat headed towards the grey warehouses, where a group of armed pro-government men greeted them.

Workers and some UN personnel wore safety helmets, as some wheat could be seen pouring out of the silos.

"We need sustained access to the mills in order to fumigate the wheat and then start milling it," said Verhoosel.

"To do that we need safe passage to the mills for WFP staff and the mill workers.

"It will take weeks of sustained access to the mills to get the facility back to normal operations."

Both the Houthis and the government forces are accused of failing to protect civilians in the conflict in Yemen, which has long been the Arab world's most impoverished country.

Around 10,000 people — mostly civilians — have been killed and more than 60,000 wounded since 2015 when the Saudi-led coalition intervened on the side of the government, according to the World Health Organisation.

Human rights groups say the real figure could be five times as high.

"Yes, reaching the mills seems like an important step," said the resident Eman. "But we hope that this momentum continues and it is not just a 'failed' step."

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