Yemen's Houthis deny UN access to Hodeidah mills for 'safety reasons'

Arab Coalition say the actions are another example of Houthi intransigence

Hanaa Ahmad Ali Bahr, a malnourished girl sits on her father's lap in a shanty town in Hodeidah, Yemen March 25, 2019. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad
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Houthi forces denied the United Nations access to a grain storage site in the Yemeni port of Hodeidah on Tuesday, sources familiar with the matter said, hindering efforts to increase food aid to millions facing severe hunger.

Hodeidah is the entry point for most of Yemen’s humanitarian aid and commercial imports. World Food Programme (WFP) grain stores there have been cut off in the conflict zone for six months, putting the contents at risk of rotting.

A WFP technical team was scheduled to cross the front line between the Iran-aligned Houthi movement forces and the Saudi-backed government on the eastern outskirts of Hodeidah to fumigate the wheat stored in the Red Sea Mills.

But Houthi forces told the WFP team they could not leave Houthi-held areas inside Hodeidah city for “security reasons”, asking the United Nations instead for a way to investigate attacks on the mills.

“The Houthis argued that government forces will target the UN and then they will be blamed for it,” one source aware of the discussion said. “If the wheat is not fumigated, it will be lost.”

The WFP regained access to the mills last month, a step hailed by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. The grain stores there have more than 51,000 tonnes of wheat, enough to feed 3.7 million people.

WFP spokesman Herve Verhoosel said a WFP mission to the Red Sea Mills was scheduled for Tuesday but was postponed due to “safety concerns”. Mr Verhoosel declined to give details.

Houthi officials did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment.

An official in the Arab Coalition, which supports the government of exiled President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi against the Houthis, said it was committed to working with the UN.

"Since the UN gained access to test grain in the Red Sea Mills in Hodeidah on 26 February, coalition teams on the ground, along with the government of Yemen, have been working diligently to ensure that the WFP and other UN stakeholders are able to access the grain and begin to distribute it," the official said in a statement provided to The National.

“After several delays on the Houthi side, it was finally agreed that 120 workers would be able to access the mills from today. Unfortunately, the Houthis have decided to once again renege on a previous commitment, denying the team access to the mills. These mills are an essential lifeline for the people of Yemen.”

The Houthis and the government of Mr Hadi agreed at UN-sponsored talks in Sweden in December to a truce and troop withdrawal from Hodeidah.

But talks aimed at securing a mutual military withdrawal from Hodeidah have stalled despite UN efforts to salvage the deal and nudge both sides to agree on steps toward disengagement after four years of war.

“This is just the latest episode of Houthi intransigence since the Stockholm talks, demonstrating their continued disregard for the welfare of Yemeni civilians,” the official in the Arab Coalition said.

Under the Sweden deal, the government retreat would free up access to the Red Sea Mills and humanitarian corridors would also be reopened. The warring sides would still need to agree on which road could be used to transport supplies from the site to needy recipients.

The WFP is now reaching about 10 million Yemenis per month with food aid and hopes to scale up to 12 million this year, but sporadic clashes make Hodeidah and its province unsafe despite the ceasefire agreement.

The war has killed tens of thousands and brought Yemen to the verge of famine.

The official in the Arab coalition blamed the Houthis: “While the Coalition has worked, and will continue to work, with the legitimate Yemeni government to ensure priority movement of essential aid, the Houthis have decided instead to gamble the future of millions of Yemenis dependent on access to the Red Sea Mills."