UNITED NATIONS — UN officials, diplomats and human rights organizations expressed grave concerns Wednesday that Yemen's humanitarian crisis — already deemed the worst on Earth — deteriorated even more this week as civil war combat neared the country's largest port city.
"The fighting has now continued around the outskirts of Hodeidah City in the last 24 hours," said Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, at the UN’s headquarters in Manhattan. " . . . Humanitarian agencies have consistently warned that protracted fighting inside Hodeidah City, or any incident that interrupted port operations, could set off a humanitarian catastrophe.”
Amnesty International called the presence of fighters in and around hospitals an “extremely worrying development” as Houthi fighters were reported to have taken up positions inside of one medical facility. Under international law, civilian infrastructure, such as hospitals and their medical workers, are off-limits to combat.
“This is a stomach-churning development that could have devastating consequences for the hospital’s medical workers and dozens of civilian patients, including many children, being treated there,” said Samah Hadid, Amnesty International’s Middle East Director of Campaigns, in a news release.
Doctors Without Borders, also known as Medicins Sans Frontieres, issued an equally ominous statement saying its medical centers were receiving more people with war-related injuries in Hodeidah, Hajjah, Aden, Saada and Taiz governorates. The latest fighting is part of a civil war that has dragged on for more than three years and 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 talks of a ceasefire.
"A stronger offensive was launched by forces backed by the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition with a deployment of troops on the ground," said Frederic Bertrand, who heads the medical organization’s mission in Yemen. "They have moved quickly around the city. This raises fears of a siege which could affect the tens of thousands of people still living inside Hodeidah."
At the Security Council Wednesday, diplomats failed to reach consensus on a statement to end the fighting after three countries blocked the measure, demanding the 15-member Council draft a resolution requiring combatants meet at the negotiating table in an effort to end the war, according to Agence France-Presse.
The dire warnings come as the Saudi-led coalition’s latest offensive puts more civilians in peril even as Guterres and other officials have called for an end to escalating combat as famine engulfs the country.
U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo joined United Kingdom Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt on Oct. 29 in supporting a ceasefire, as did Guterres on Friday. By some estimates, the war has killed at least 16,000 civilians since March 2015, according to the Manhattan-based Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.
On Tuesday, Henrietta H. Fore, executive director of the UN Children’s Fund, said children at Al Thawra hospital in Hodeidah are most at risk.
“Medical staff and patients in the hospital have confirmed hearing heavy bombing and gunfire,” she said. “Access to and from the hospital, the only functioning one in the area, is now imperiled.”
The agency said that there are 59 children currently at the hospital, with 25 under intensive care.
“UNICEF calls on all parties to cease hostilities near and around the hospital,” Fore said, adding, “and to ensure that civilians can safely access the hospital from all sides, and to abide by their legal obligations to stop attacks against civilian infrastructure — including the port of Hodeidah.”