Britain has urged the UAE not to press ahead with an assault on Yemen’s main port following UN warnings that the attack could leave hundreds of thousands dead in a country already on the brink of famine.
UAE forces are poised to attack the port of Hodeidah as early as Tuesday as part of their campaign with Saudi Arabia to defeat the Houthi rebels who have seized much of north Yemen.
Around 70 per cent of Yemen’s imports, including the vast majority of its food, comes through Hodeidah and the port is described as the country’s “lifeline”.
The UN said last week that up to 250,000 people could die if the port is attacked or besieged.
“We will continue to discourage any attack on Hodeidah port and will continue to use our influence to do so,” Alistair Burt, a foreign office minister, told the House of Commons.
The Department for International Development (Dfid) warned international aid groups on Saturday that diplomatic negotiations to avert the attack were failing.
“We are doing everything we can through diplomatic channels to discourage an assault on Hodeidah. However despite these actions, a military assault now looks imminent,” Dfid said in an email to aid groups.
By Monday evening, diplomatic efforts to dissuade the UAE were still underway and British officials said they had not lost hope of averting the attack. “It could still be that a negotiated solution is found,” said Mr Burt.
The UK sells weapons to both the UAE and Saudi Arabia and provides logistical support for their military coalition in Yemen. Mr Burt resisted calls from opposition MPs to halt arms supplies or to ensure that UK weapons were not used in the Hodeidah attack.
Several aid agency figures said they believed that the attack was likely to begin on Tuesday, when international attention was focused on the summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un in Singapore.
The Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen, which includes the UAE, did not respond to a request for comment.
Extremely concerned that life-saving organisations are not getting the security guarantees they need to work safely in #Yemen. All parties to the conflict must allow safe, rapid and unhindered humanitarian access to all parts of Yemen.
— Alistair Burt (@AlistairBurtUK) June 10, 2018
UN officials believe the US will play the deciding role in whether or not the attack goes ahead and that the UAE would not move forward without a green light from the White House. “So far they have a blinking yellow light from the US,” one official said.
Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, said he was “closely following” the situation but did not call for the UAE to hold fire. “I have spoken with Emirati leaders and made clear our desire to address their security concerns while preserving the free flow of humanitarian aid and life-saving commercial imports,” he said.
The Houthi rebels took control of Hodeidah in 2014 and drove Yemeni government forces out. The Saudi-led military coalition alleges that the Houthis are using the port to smuggle weapons from Iran, including ballistic missiles which have been fired into Saudi Arabia.
As part of a compromise deal to avert an attack, the UN has offered to co-manage the port alongside the Houthis. The offer is intended to give the Saudi coalition confidence that Hodeidah is not being used for weapons smuggling.
Aid groups fear that the compromise will not satisfy the coalition and that the UAE will press ahead with the attack in the belief that if they take Hodeidah they can force the Houthis to surrender across Yemen.
Dr Mariam Aldogani, a field manager for Save the Children, said two medical facilities had closed already as UAE forces approach the southern edge of Hodeidah. “People are afraid. If they attack it will be a disaster,” she said. “There is no future. For more than three years we have been through war and it is enough.”
Around 22 million people in Yemen are dependent on aid, with at least eight million on the verge of famine, according to the UN.
A Saudi coalition airstrike hit a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) cholera treatment centre in the northern town of Abs early on Monday morning, the aid group said. No one was injured.
João Martins, MSF’s head of mission Yemen, said the strike showed “complete disrespect for medical facilities and patients. Whether intentional or a result of negligence, it is totally unacceptable.”