UNITED NATIONS — UN chief Antonio Guterres announced Thursday that the warring parties in Yemen’s 3-year-old civil war have reached an agreement that could signal the start of the end of the conflict.
The hopeful declaration by Guterres came in the same week that the head of UN’s humanitarian agency said the situation had reached a historically desperate level, with more people on the brink of starvation than ever before.
“We are living the beginning of the end of one of the biggest tragedies of the 21st century — the conflict in Yemen, the worst humanitarian situation that we face,” Guterres said during a news conference in Rimbo, Sweden, just after negotiators had hammered out a cease-fire in and around the key port city of Hodeidah.
“Today’s agreement is particularly important because it includes Hodeidah and it is my deep belief that the question of Hodeidah was the ‘make it or break it’ “ he said, adding, “in relation to making sure that this could be the first step of a process that, we hope, will lead to the end of the conflict.”
Hodeidah had become the scene of intense fighting in recent months, as the city’s port is the lifeline for the delivery of supplies, food and medicines to millions of people, diplomats and UN officials have said. International medical and human rights organizations, including Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty International sounded an alarm in November as medical facilities and personnel came under attack, actions that could be classified as war crimes.
As much as 70 percent of the food coming into Yemen comes through that port, officials said.
“This will facilitate the humanitarian access and the flow of goods to the civilian population,” Guterres said. “It will improve the living conditions for millions of Yemenis.”
On Monday, Mark Lowcock, the head of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, called the situation in Yemen an “atrocious crisis” that had reached staggering proportions, adding that there are 20 million people going hungry in Yemen, some 70 percent of the population.
He added that there is a food emergency in 152 districts surveyed recently, a 45 percent increase over the 107 districts at that level of food insecurity last year. Further, Lowcock said, there are 250,000 people at “catastrophe” level in four districts, including Hodeidah.
“There’s millions of Yemenis who are hungry and sick and scared and desperate and starving but they’ve got one message,” Lowcock told reporters in Manhattan. “And the message is they’re at the end of their tether. They want this war to stop.”
Yemen’s civil war involves Iran-backed Houthi rebels and a Saudi Arabia-led coalition that supports the ousted Yemeni government. The United States has backed the Saudi-led coalition but recently has supported the cease-fire talks.
On Thursday, the U.S. Senate voted 56 to 41 to withdraw American military assistance to Saudi Arabia, a response to Saudi leaders’ alleged role in the death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed in October after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
The vote was seen as a rebuke to President Donald Trump, who has supported Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman despite U.S. intelligence agencies’ assessment that he ordered the assassination of the dissident journalist.