Yemeni cease-fire fails to stop fighting, rebels block food aid

Aya, 2 years old, in Yemen's Hodeidah main hospital being checked for acute malnutrition. (Credit: WFP/Abeer Etefa)

The 48-hour cease-fire in Yemen ended today with both sides arguing that the other continued to fight over the period declared unilaterally by the Saudi-led coalition that backs the Yemeni government.

“There is no respect [for the truce], only violations,” said coalition spokesperson Major-General Ahmed al-Asiri, to Agence France-Presse. “There have been more people killed in Taiz and more attacks with surface-to-surface missiles, so automatically the conditions are not there [for an extension].”

Not only did fighting persist in the besieged western city of Taiz, but food aid did not reach people in need. Yemeni security officials told the Associated Press that 18 trucks from the World Food Program (WFP) set for Taiz were blocked from leaving the city of Ibb on Sunday. They blamed Shiite Houthi rebels and allied forces, who are also responsible for the year-long siege on Taiz.

For most of the year, WFP provided food aid to 3 million people in Yemen each month. They split rations in recent months to double their reach. Despite the assistance, the U.N. and other groups working in Yemen have issued intermittent warnings that famine is possible.

“An entire generation could be crippled by hunger,” said WFP Country Director in Yemen Torben Due, in a statement. “We need to scale up our life-saving assistance to reach more people with timely food assistance and preventive treatment. … We need to provide a full ration to every family in need, but sadly we have had to reduce the size of the food basket and split assistance between impoverished families to meet growing needs.”

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A 72-hour humanitarian pause in late October allowed WFP to deliver food assistance to 155,000 people in Taiz. It continued operations to reach an additional 189,000 people located in nearby hard-to-reach places.

The city is one of the hardest hit places by the ongoing fighting between rebel and government forces. Doctors Without Borders says it treated 10,000 patients in the city since May 2015. People are injured or killed by airstrikes and gunfire as they try to go about their daily lives. Patients tell Doctors Without Borders they were traveling to the market or were at home or were going to work when they were attacked.

Humanitarian actors continue to urge all sides to agree to and follow a cease-fire agreement.

Some 563 truce violations by rebels were recorded over the course of the cease-fire, by the coalition. The rebels also accused the coalition of violating the agreement. Neutral observers may be used during the next cease-fire to monitor violations, said an official with the Saudi-led coalition to Reuters.

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The coalition supports the Yemeni government mostly through airstrikes on rebel targets. The U.S. is a partner, providing weapons through sales, refueling assistance to aircraft and intelligence. Human rights groups say the indiscriminate attacks launched by the coalition that have struck hospitals and schools may amount to war crimes.

The Houthi rebels and affiliated groups are also accused of indiscriminate attacks. Caught in the middle of the fighting are Yemeni civilians. More than 21 million people out of a population of 26 million need humanitarian assistance, says the U.N.

The agreement to the cease-fire, brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, was a diplomatic breakthrough that did not translate to a significant easing of violence. The Yemeni government rejected a proposed plan that would have seen rebels withdraw from major cities and negotiate the formation of a joint-government.

The deal was an “initial step in the right direction,” said a spokesperson for the European Union in a statement Monday. The EU reiterated its support for ongoing peace talks and urged all sides to agree to an unconditional extension of the ceasefire. That call went unheeded with the announcement by the coalition that the cease-fire is over.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.