Yemen port, airport to reopen to 'urgent humanitarian and relief materials' on Thursday

A file photo of a cargo ship moored at Yemen's rebel-held Red Sea port of Hodeida.
A file photo of a cargo ship moored at Yemen's rebel-held Red Sea port of Hodeida. PHOTO: AFP

RIYADH (AFP, REUTERS) - The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen said on Wednesday (Nov 22) it would reopen a key Red Sea port and Sana'a airport to aid, after a more than two-week blockade following a missile attack on Riyadh.

The coalition said it would reopen Hodeida port to receive "urgent humanitarian and relief materials" and Sana'a airport to UN aircraft from midday on Thursday (0900 GMT).

It did not specify when or if it would ease a blockade on commercial traffic.

It was not clear if pressure from Washington was the direct cause of the Saudi change of heart but a request from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was one of several US attempts this month to have Riyadh soften its hawkish foreign policy.

Tillerson asked for a loosening of the blockade on Yemen during a roughly 45-minute phone call at the beginning of this week, according to a source familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

R.C. Hammond, a top adviser to Tillerson, confirmed the exchange with Prince Mohammed.

The secretary of state “has brought the request to (the) Saudis’ attention several times over the past months,” he added. 

The Trump administration, according to U.S. officials and a European diplomat, also pressed the Saudis to allow Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to return to Beirut after he flew to Riyadh on Nov 4 and abruptly announced his resignation.

 

Hodeida, which is controlled by Houthi rebels backed by Saudi Arabia's arch-rival Iran, is a key conduit for much-needed food and medicine imports to Yemen.

The coalition imposed a total blockade of Yemen's ports and airports two days after the Houthis fired a missile at Saudi Arabia on Nov 4.

The missile was intercepted near Riyadh's King Khalid International Airport, sparking a war of words between Tehran and Riyadh, which accused Iran of "direct aggression" and supplying arms to the Houthis.

The United Nations said on Wednesday it had been notified by the Saudi authorities of the reopening on Thursday of the Yemeni ports of Hodeida and Saleef, as well as Sana'a airport.

"We are monitoring these developments and we are trying to see whether that actually takes place on the ground," UN spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters at UN headquarters in New York.

"Of course, if that were to happen that would be a very welcome and critically important development." Aid group Save the Children welcomed the coalition's announcement but said opening the port and airport would be "nowhere near enough to avert a potential famine in Yemen".

"Humanitarian relief only provides a small portion of the essential goods needed in Yemen - commercial supplies are critical to feed the population and keep basic services running," it said.

UN aid chief Mark Lowcock called on November 8 for the blockade to be lifted, warning that Yemen would otherwise face "the largest famine the world has seen for decades".

The Houthi government on Tuesday announced the country's main international airport was fully functional again a week after a Saudi-led air strike destroyed the facility's navigation system.

The airport had been open to only select humanitarian flights.

 

Allied with Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Iran-backed Houthi rebels control the capital Sana'a along with much of northern Yemen.

In 2015, Saudi Arabia and its allies joined the Yemeni government's fight against the rebels.

More than 8,750 people have since been killed.

The country also faces a deadly cholera epidemic and millions stand at the brink of official famine.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says Yemen is highly dependent on imported wheat for its basic needs.