The United Nations’ special envoy to war-ravaged Yemen has arrived in Sanaa to meet leading Houthi rebels, just as a Saudi-UAE-backed government offensive to retake the strategic western port city of Hodeidah intensifies.
Martin Griffiths’ visit to the capital on Sunday came after his push last week for peace talks between representatives from Yemen’s internationally recognised government and the rebels fell apart before they could officially begin.
That meeting, which would have been the first in nearly two years, was scheduled to take place in the Swiss city of Geneva on September 6. The Houthi delegation, however, did not show up, accusing the UN of failing to guarantee their safe return to Sanaa and secure the evacuation of wounded rebels to Oman.
Shortly after the talks’ collapse, the Saudi-UAE-backed government forces intensified their push to capture Houthi-held Hodeidah and its port, which is considered the lifeline of Yemen.
The offensive was first launched in June but was briefly halted in the lead-up to the Geneva initiative.
On Sunday, medical and hospital sources told AFP news agency that at 32 Houthi fighters had been killed in fierce fighting and air attacks around Hodeidah.
The Houthis also said that a Saudi-UAE air raid struck a radio station in the city’s al-Marawa district, killing three security guards and one member of staff.
Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons, reporting from nearby Djibouti, said the Saudi-UAE coalition’s offensive on the city appeared to be “at its most intense” point.
“There are also many concerns rising for the level of malnutrition across the country, which is getting to a critical level,” he added.
The UN has warned that continued conflict in Hodeidah, the entry point for the bulk of Yemen’s commercial imports and aid supplies, could trigger a famine.
An estimated 8.4 million people are at risk of starvation in Yemen, according to the UN.
The country’s three-year war has ensnared millions in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with more than 22 million in dire need of assistance. The UN says at least 10,000 people have been killed in the war, but the death toll that has not been updated in years and is certain to be far higher.
With logistical support from the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have carried out attacks in Yemen since March 2015, in an attempt to reinstate the internationally recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
In 2014, Hadi and his forces were overrun by the Houthi rebels who took over much of the country, including Sanaa. Since then, they have recaptured some of the territory previously lost.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE see Hodeidah port as the main entry point of weapons for the Houthis and have accused their regional rival Iran of sending missiles to the rebels, a charge Tehran has denied.
Houthis ‘sign memorandum’ with UN
On Thursday, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator Lise Grande warned that “hundreds of thousands of lives hang in the balance” in Hodeidah, with “families absolutely terrified by the bombardment, shelling and air strikes”.
“The human cost and the humanitarian impact of this conflict is unjustifiable,” Grande said.
Her comments came two days before Houthi officials said they had signed a memorandum of understanding with Grande to airlift critically ill patients abroad for treatment.
The Houthi-run Saba news agency reported on Saturday that the memorandum would include transporting critically ill Yemenis abroad from Tuesday 18 September, for a period of six months.
A report last month by a team of UN-mandated investigators concluded there were “reasonable grounds” to believe all parties in Yemen’s war had “committed a substantial number of violations of international humanitarian law”.