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U.S. plan to help Yemenis obtain humanitarian aid falters, amid growing food crisis

A Houthi militia media officer checks a camera next to giant cranes, damaged by Saudi-led airstrikes, at a container terminal at the Red Sea port of Hodeida. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
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An American plan to facilitate the urgent entry of food, medicine and commercial goods into Yemen has been halted at least temporarily, U.S. and U.N. officials said, risking the potential worsening of an already dire humanitarian crisis.

The push to rehabilitate the Red Sea port of Hodeida, a vital sea link severely damaged amid Yemen’s ongoing civil war, comes as a grinding conflict puts millions of Yemenis in acute need of humanitarian aid, and relief agencies struggle to get needed supplies to those hovering on the brink of starvation. It also takes places as the new Trump administration reconsiders the U.S. policy regarding Yemen, approaching the third year of a conflict that has pitted the country’s U.S.- and Saudi-backed government against Houthi rebels that Gulf nations say are backed by Iran.

The port, including a series of large industrial cranes used to unload shipping containers, was first targeted in 2015 by aircraft from Saudi Arabia, which is leading a coalition of countries battling Houthi rebels who control the seaside facility, U.S. and U.N. officials say. The destruction at the port, which impaired the flow of arriving goods and added to an already acute shortage of food and other supplies, is just one manifestation of the destruction the war has inflicted on critical infrastructure across Yemen.

Now, an effort begun under the Obama administration to restore Hodeida port to normal operations, and help more relief supplies reach needy Yemenis, remains in doubt. Replacement cranes paid for the United States and brought to Yemen’s coast by the United Nations are languishing at a Dubai storage facility. U.S. and U.N. officials have given conflicting reasons for the delay, and about whether Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally who Washington is supporting in its Yemen campaign, is to blame.

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Stephen Anderson, Yemen country director for the World Food Program (WFP), the U.N. agency responsible for responding to famine and other food emergencies worldwide, said the port is a primary entry point for goods coming into Yemen, which relies on outside suppliers for virtually all its food, fuel and medicine. “We just want to keep this lifeline open,” he said.

Last year, hoping to help alleviate a growing humanitarian crisis, the Obama administration provided funds to WFP to procure and install four large replacement cranes for Hodeida. Two of the cranes would be reserved for use by WFP, a sign of the intense interest in getting more aid into Yemen. Officials also hoped that increased transport of other commercial goods would help the Yemeni economy at a time of scarcity and high prices.

“If we lose access … it’s a game-changer,” Anderson said.

Eric Pelofsky, who was a senior official for North Africa and Yemen in the Obama White House, said refurbishment of the port was a priority in the final period of the previous administration. “We had very much hoped that the new cranes, replacing those destroyed by the airstrikes, would increase the flow of food and other essentials into Yemen in order to stave off the looming risk of famine,” he said.

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Since it erupted in 2015, the Yemen conflict, which become a proxy fight between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has presented a dilemma for the United States. On one hand, U.S. military support for the Saudi operation in Yemen, which includes aerial refueling for Saudi jets, was a chance for the Obama administration to repair ties with Riyadh, alienated by the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran. On the other hand, officials were dismayed by their links to a war marked by Saudi strikes on civilians and a mounting humanitarian catastrophe.

According to Anderson, the WFP secured permission from the Saudi-led coalition, which controls the sea perimeter around Hodeida, to deliver the cranes to the port early this year. When the cranes arrived off the Yemeni coast, however, the U.N. agency was instructed to wait. Two weeks later, in late January, it was informed that the shipment’s entry clearance had been revoked. Unsure about what to do, WFP moved the cranes back to Dubai, where it could store them in an agency depot.

“We were surprised, because we earlier had the clearance,” Anderson said by phone from Yemen. “But perhaps there were some second thoughts.”

According to current and former U.S. officials, the Saudi government has long been concerned about cargo and other shipments coming into Yemen, which officials there fear Iran could use to resupply the Houthi fighters with arms. While large ships such as those carrying the cranes are typically subject to inspection by a United Nations monitoring body, the issue of operations at the Houthi-controlled port in Hodeida remains a sensitive one for Riyadh.

“The Saudis’ argument amounts to ‘Don’t fix the cranes we bombed, just in case we may want to bomb them again,'” said Jeremy Konyndyk, who served as director of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance under the Obama administration. “Meanwhile, people starve.”

The Saudi government, through a media representative, did not provide comment.

The U.S. State Department, which has been involved with the effort to install the cranes, had a different account, saying there had been a decision to divert the cranes because of concerns they could be damaged in future fighting. The Saudi-led coalition, which also includes the United Arab Emirates, has advocated a renewed offensive to recover Hodeidah from the Houthis, which could subject the port to renewed skirmishes.

“We remain concerned about the grave humanitarian situation and urge all sides to allow unfettered access for shipments of humanitarian aid and food,” said a State Department official, who like other officials spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

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But other U.N. and U.S. officials have, like the WFP, blamed Saudi Arabia for the delay of the cranes and other shipments seeking access to Yemeni ports.

Former U.S. officials involved in Yemen said the Obama White House had pressed the Saudi government repeatedly for clearance, without success. “Given the increasing risk of famine, these cranes could urgently accelerate the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Yemenis,” a former senior U.S. official said. “It was disappointing to see them delayed.”

It’s unclear how the Trump White House, expected to take a more Saudi-friendly approach to Yemen, will handle the issue of humanitarian access and civilian casualties in Yemen. Already, President Trump has approved an expansion to a separate counterterrorism campaign against al-Qaeda in Yemen.

Earlier this week, a group of more than 50 Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urging him to do everything in his power to ensure that humanitarian supplies can get through Hodeida. Saudi aircraft have attacked the port repeatedly, including last month.

As officials discuss what to do with the cranes, humanitarian conditions have deteriorated. WFP warned this week that Yemenis would die without additional humanitarian aid and access, describing the situation as a “race against time.”

U.N. officials say the crisis has taken an especially brutal toll on children, over 2 million of whom are acutely malnourished. “It’s getting worse,” Anderson said.