President Trump on Wednesday called on Saudi Arabia to allow food, fuel, water and medicine to reach the people of Yemen, in a statement that reflected the growing alarm of relief agencies and amounted to an unusually harsh public scolding of one of his administration’s closest allies.
The Saudis have imposed intermittent blockades on Yemen, their southern neighbor, including one that was partially lifted last week. Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen’s civil war has devastated the Yemeni economy and infrastructure, leaving millions at risk of starvation and reliant on humanitarian aid. The United States sells weaponry and provides intelligence to the Saudis and their partners in the military offensive.
Since the coalition intervention began, Yemen has increasingly become a proxy battleground between Saudi Arabia and archrival Iran, which supports the largely Shiite leadership of a group known as the Houthis, who now control much of the country’s north and west.
Trump's statement came after the second consecutive night of Saudi airstrikes in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, as the Saudi-led coalition tried to prevent the Houthis from consolidating power in the city. On Monday, rebel fighters killed Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's president from 1978 to 2012. Saleh's death occurred days after he publicly broke off his wartime alliance with the Houthis while indicating an openness to negotiations with the coalition.
Saleh’s death has added to growing concern that Yemen’s war is entering a new and more destructive phase.
The Saudi-led coalition and allied forces have stated their intention to recapture Sanaa from the Houthis, raising the possibility of fierce urban warfare in Yemen’s most populous city, a place already suffering severe shortages of electricity and essential goods as a result of the conflict.
Street skirmishes spread across Sanaa with news of Saleh's death, and the International Committee of the Red Cross said that 234 people had been killed and nearly 500 injured since Monday. More are thought to have died in ground fighting than in airstrikes, but chaos in Sanaa has made an exact count impossible.
The street fighting has subsided, and residents have taken the opportunity to restock basic supplies. Aid workers and locals described the two-day pounding of the city as among the most intense since the coalition became involved in Yemen’s civil war nearly three years ago.
The conflict has created a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen. Food, medicine and fuel are scarce and too expensive for most to afford. Drinking water is hard to come by. More than 10,000 people have been killed and 2 million displaced, and 7 million are totally reliant on humanitarian aid. Without that aid, a famine would immediately break out, international observers say.
This week’s fighting resulted in the disruption of emergency services in Sanaa.
“Hospitals in Sanaa use fuel for generators that are their only source of electricity,” said Iolanda Jacquemet, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross. “Any interruption because of fighting means hospitals essentially stop functioning.”
Saleh was ousted in 2012 during the Arab Spring, and his death recalled images of a similar fate met by Moammar Gaddafi in Libya during the uprising there. But Saleh survived much longer. After losing power, he stayed in Yemen, retained loyal army commanders and forged an alliance with his former enemies, the Houthis, against the current internationally recognized president of Yemen, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Together, they took over Sanaa in 2014, then expanded their control to most of the north and west of the country, provoking Saudi intervention. This year, some commanders loyal to Saleh began taking orders from the Houthis, which may have pushed Saleh toward his dramatic and fateful decision to switch sides in the conflict. Saleh’s son Salah said via Facebook on Tuesday that he would not accept condolences for his father’s death until “after avenging the blood.”
Kareem Fahim in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Ali al-Mujahed in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report.