Biden to name special Yemen envoy, end support for Saudi-led coalition, aide says

By Jonathan Landay and Jarrett Renshaw

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday will announce a new special envoy for Yemen and an end to U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition’s offensive operations in that country’s civil war, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said.

The moves show that Biden plans to intensify the U.S. role in diplomatic efforts to close out the grueling conflict between the Saudi-backed government and the Iranian-align Houthi movement that has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Biden “is going to announce an end to American support for offensive operations in Yemen,” Sullivan told a White House briefing. “That is a promise he made in the campaign that he will be following through on.”

Sullivan also said that Biden would name a new special envoy for Yemen, but he did not disclose the person’s name. A source familiar with the matter said the U.S. president was expected to tap veteran U.S. diplomat Timothy Lenderking for the new post.

HUMANITARIAN CALAMITY

The end of U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition’s offensive operations does not extend to efforts to neutralize al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, Sullivan said.

“It extends to the types of offensive operations that have perpetuated a civil war in Yemen that have led to a humanitarian crisis,” he said.

The new U.S. administration, he noted, already has halted two sales of precision-guided munitions and kept regional allies in the region informed of actions to avoid surprises.

The civil war in Yemen has claimed tens of thousands of lives, including large numbers of civilians, and left 80% of the country’s 24 million people in need, according to the United Nations.

The Saudi-led coalition intervened in March 2015 on the side of the government and enjoyed the backing of the Trump administration, with the war increasingly seen as a proxy conflict between the United States and Iran.

But the mounting civilian death toll and growing humanitarian calamity fueled demands by Republican and Democratic lawmakers for an end to U.S. support for Riyadh.

Biden pledged during the 2020 presidential campaign to curtail U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s military campaign, including arms sales.

The U.N. has been struggling to broker peace talks between the government and the Houthis, an effort that Lenderking likely would be tasked to boost.

“Any move that reduces the number of weapons, military activity, is to be welcomed and will give more space and more hope not only to the (peace) talks, but importantly more hope to the people of Yemen,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

The State Department is reviewing the Trump administration’s designation last month of the Iran-aligned Houthi group as a foreign terrorist organization.

The United States last week approved all transactions involving Yemen’s Houthi movement for the next month as it carries out the review. But the United Nations is still hearing concerns that companies are planning to cancel or suspend business with Yemen despite the move.

The U.N. and aid groups have called for the designation to be reversed, warning it would push Yemen into a large-scale famine.

(Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Editing by Alistair Bell and Paul Simao)

Yemen government announces new push to seize key port, U.N. warns of ‘dire’ conditions

FILE PHOTO: A boy cries at al-Thawra Hospital after his brother was injured in a strike near the hospital in Hodeidah, Yemen August 2, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad/File Photo

By Mohammed Ghobari and Stephanie Nebehay

ADEN, Yemen/GENEVA (Reuters) – Yemeni forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition launched on Friday a “vast offensive” to take full control of the port city of Hodeidah, the internationally recognized government based in the southern city of Aden said.

The announcement came as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) warned that many people remained trapped in the city by the fighting. It also said nearly half a million people have fled the area since June.

“A military operation has begun and the national army forces have advanced towards the north and the western sides of the city of Hodeidah, progressing on all fronts with the support of the Arab coalition,” the government said in a statement.

“Fierce battles are taking place at these moments.”

The Red Sea port of Hodeidah has become a key battleground in Yemen’s nearly four-year-long war, which pits the Saudi-led coalition against the Iran-allied Houthis, who control the capital Sanaa. The Houthis have held Hodeidah since 2014.

Hours after Friday’s announcement of a new offensive, residents said the progress of coalition forces appeared limited. They said the Houthis had withdrawn from a hospital in the eastern suburbs of Hodeidah where fighting has been concentrated in recent days but they remained in the area.

The Houthis raided the May 22 hospital earlier this week, posting gunmen on its rooftop, according to rights groups who voiced alarm for the fate of the medical staff and patients.

U.N. bodies have warned that an all-out attack on Hodeidah, an entry point for 80 percent of Yemen’s food imports and aid relief, could trigger famine in the impoverished state.

The United States and Britain, which provide arms and intelligence to the Saudi-led coalition, have stepped up calls for a ceasefire in Yemen, raising pressure on Riyadh as it faces a global outcry over the murder of a prominent Saudi journalist in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

UNHCR ALARM

The UNHCR expressed alarm over the fate of unknown numbers of people trapped in Hodeidah by the latest fighting.

“As testament to how dire the situation is, some 445,000 people from al-Hodeidah Governorate have been forced to flee since June, according to UN data,” spokeswoman Shabia Mantoo told a news briefing in Geneva on Friday.

Some of them have fled to other parts of Hodeidah province and some to other areas of Yemen, she told Reuters.

The province of Hodeidah, including the port city, had a population of 2.6 million in 2011, four years before the civil war erupted, according to Yemeni statistics.

“While the number of those remaining in Hodeidah city is difficult to gauge, UNHCR is worried that people needing to flee for safety aren’t able to do so. They are trapped by military operations, which are increasingly confining populations and cutting off exit routes,” Mantoo said.

The UNHCR appealed to all sides to allow access to its warehouse stocked with emergency shelter and essential aid items that it said had been cut off by an active front line.

The U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP) said on Thursday it planned to double its food assistance program for Yemen, aiming to reach up to 14 million people “to avert mass starvation”.

Saudi Arabia is leading a Western-backed alliance of Sunni Muslim Arab states to try to restore Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his internationally recognized government that was ousted by the Houthis in 2015.

The government has fled to Aden, but Hadi and other cabinet members are based in the Saudi capital Riyadh.

The United Nations has no up-to-date estimate of the death toll in Yemen. It said in August 2016 that according to medical centers at least 10,000 people had been killed.

The United Nations’ Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths hopes to convene Yemen’s warring parties for peace talks by the end of the year.

(Additional reporting by Mohammed Mukhashef in Aden and Maher Chmaytelli in Dubai; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Saudi-led coalition masses troops near Yemen’s Hodeidah as pressure mounts to end war

FILE PHOTO: Protesters hold up a poster of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi during a protest against the deteriorating economy in Taiz, Yemen, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Anees Mahyoub/File Photo

By Mohammed Ghobari

ADEN (Reuters) – The Saudi-led coalition has massed thousands of troops near Yemen’s main port city of Hodeidah, local military sources said on Wednesday, in a move to pressure Iranian-aligned Houthi insurgents to return to U.N.-sponsored peace talks.

The United States and Britain have called for an end to the 3-1/2-year war that has driven impoverished Yemen to the verge of famine, raising pressure on Saudi Arabia as it faces a global outcry over the murder of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

The military alliance of Sunni Muslim states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has deployed around 30,000 forces south of Houthi-held Hodeidah and near its eastern entrance, pro-coalition Yemeni military sources told Reuters.

“Thousands of Yemeni soldiers trained by the coalition have been sent to the outskirts of Hodeidah in addition to modern weaponry including armored vehicles and tanks…in preparation for a big operation in coming days,” said one source.

Residents told Reuters that the Houthis had also deployed forces in the center of Hodeidah city, at the port and in southern neighborhoods in anticipation of an onslaught.

The coalition and the Houthis have not commented on the military movements.

The U.N. special envoy to Yemen is trying to salvage peace talks that collapsed in September, raising the risk of a renewed assault on the Red Sea city, the country’s main port and a lifeline for millions of Yemenis reliant on humanitarian aid.

Envoy Martin Griffiths welcomed a call by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday for a cessation of hostilities ahead of U.N.-led negotiations scheduled to begin next month.

Britain also endorsed the U.S. call to end the fighting, which has killed more than 10,000 people, according to available U.N. figures, and triggered the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis.

“We remain committed to bring the Yemeni parties to the negotiations table within a month. Dialogue remains the only path to reach an inclusive agreement,” Griffiths said in a statement issued on Wednesday.

“I urge all concerned parties to seize this opportunity to engage constructively with our current efforts to swiftly resume political consultations to agree on a framework for political negotiations, and confidence-building measures,” he said, listing support for the central bank and a prisoner swap.

DIRE SITUATION

The Western-backed Arab alliance intervened in Yemen’s war, widely seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, in 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government.

But after seizing the southern port city of Aden and some towns on the western coast, the alliance has made little gains in a costly war to unseat the Houthis, who hold the most populous parts of Yemen including the capital Sanaa.

The United Nations aid chief told the Security Council earlier this month that half the population of Yemen – some 14 million people – could soon be on the brink of famine.

Aid groups warned of deteriorating conditions in the Arabian Peninsula country.

“The recent increase in military activity in…Hodeidah threatens the security of our life-saving operations,” World Food Programme spokesman Herve Verhoosel said on Wednesday.

He said the WFP has enough cereals to assist 6.4 million of the neediest Yemenis for 2-1/2 months, with the aim to reach 8 million.

Red Cross spokeswoman Sara Alzawqari said that an estimated 3,200 families – some 22,000-28,000 people – were in dire need of basic necessities including food, water and shelter in Hodeidah, many having fled fighting in rural areas.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have repeatedly said that taking control of Hodeidah would force the Houthi movement to the negotiating table by cutting off its main supply line.

But a previous offensive on the heavily-defended city in June failed to accomplish any gains and the coalition halted the fighting to give U.N. peace talks in Geneva a chance.

The talks were abandoned when the Houthi delegation failed to show up. The Houthis accused the coalition of blocking the group’s team from traveling, while the Yemeni government accused the Houthis of trying to sabotage the negotiations.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Suspected cholera cases in Yemen hit 1 million: Red Cross

A health worker reviews a list of patients admitted to a cholera treatment center in Sanaa, Yemen

DUBAI (Reuters) – The number of suspected cholera cases in Yemen has hit 1 million, the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Thursday, as war has left more than 80 percent of the population short of food, fuel, clean water and access to healthcare.

Yemen, one of the Arab world’s poorest countries, is in a proxy war between the Houthi armed movement, allied with Iran, and a U.S.-backed military coalition headed by Saudi Arabia.

The United Nations says it is suffering the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The World Health Organization has recorded 2,219 deaths since the cholera epidemic began in April, with children accounting for nearly a third of infections.

Cholera, spread by food or water contaminated with human faeces, causes acute diarrhea and dehydration and can kill within hours if untreated. Yemen’s health system has virtually collapsed, with most health workers unpaid for months.

On Dec 3, the WHO said another wave of cholera could strike within months after the Saudi-led coalition closed air, land and sea access, cutting off fuel for hospitals and water pumps and aid supplies for starving children.

The ports were closed in retaliation for a missile fired from Yemen by the Houthis. On Wednesday, despite a fresh missile attack on Riyadh, Saudi Arabia said it would allow the Houthi-controled port of Hodeidah, vital for aid, to stay open for a month.

(Reporting by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Yemen’s ex-president Saleh shot dead after switching sides in civil war

A supporter of Yemen's then President Ali Abdullah Saleh waves a poster featuring him during a rally to show support for him in Sanaa September 9, 2011.

By Noah Browning and Sami Aboudi

SANAA/DUBAI (Reuters) – Veteran former president Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed in a roadside attack on Monday after switching sides in Yemen’s civil war, abandoning his Iran-aligned Houthi allies in favor of a Saudi-led coalition, foes and supporters said.

Sources in the Houthi militia said its fighters stopped Saleh’s armored vehicle with an RPG rocket outside the embattled capital Sanaa and then shot him dead. Sources in Saleh’s party confirmed he died in an attack on his convoy.

Unverified footage of his bloodied body lolling in a blanket circulated just days after he tore up his alliance with the Houthis following nearly three years in which they had jointly battled the Saudi-led coalition that intervened to try to reinstate Yemen’s internationally recognized government.

Saleh’s death, close watchers of Yemen say, will be a huge moral boost for the Houthis and a major blow to the Saudi-led coalition. Any hope of the coalition that Saleh could have been bought off to help them against the Houthis has now been dashed and the Houthis have destroyed a powerful new adversary.

The coalition must either continue its long war in Yemen or offer compromises to bring the Houthis to the negotiating table.

In a televised speech on Monday, Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi congratulated the Yemeni people for what he described as a victory against a “conspiracy of treason” engineered by the group’s Gulf Arab enemies. He did not mention Saleh’s death.

Supporters of the Houthis drove through city streets blasting celebratory war songs.

Saleh, 75, had said in a speech on Saturday that he was ready for a “new page” in ties with the coalition and called the Houthis a “coup militia”, leading them to accuse him of betrayal.

Warfare between the former allies has torn densely populated Sanaa for days as Houthi fighters seized control of much of the capital and on Monday blew up Saleh’s house while coalition jets bombed their own positions.

A Houthi militant mans a checkpoint as clashes with forces loyal to Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh continue in Sanaa, Yemen December 4, 2017.

A Houthi militant mans a checkpoint as clashes with forces loyal to Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh continue in Sanaa, Yemen December 4, 2017. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

The end of their alliance could transform the course of war in the Arabian Peninsula country after two years of attrition along mostly static front lines, which gave the Saudi-led coalition a new advantage over the Houthis.

Stalemate in Yemen has contributed to a human catastrophe as a Saudi-led blockade and internal fighting has thrust millions of people to the brink of famine and accelerated the spread of deadly epidemics.

Eyes will now turn to Saleh’s political allies and military commanders, whom analysts credited with aiding the Houthi march southwards in 2014 to dominate swathes of western Yemen.

“What happens now and whether his family and political allies fight on is not yet clear,” said Adam Baron, a Yemen expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“His people will be angry, and many will certainly be out for blood, but there are many in the middle especially among the tribes who will fall with whoever appears stronger,” he said.

“The (Saudi-led) coalition may have put a lot of their eggs in Saleh’s basket, only for it to fall over now. They appeared to strongly support his attempt to confront the Houthis and now that bid may have failed.”

 

HEADS OF SNAKES

A Western diplomat told Reuters: “Brutal revenge could be the only way forward for the Saleh clan.”

The Saudi-led coalition, the diplomat added, could aim for a lightning attack on key urban centers that have eluded their grasp in years of war.

“Let’s see if they take advantage of the fog of war and try to take Sanaa or (the Red Sea port) of Hodeidah.”

Saleh once compared his 33-year rule over Yemen to “dancing on the heads of snakes”, a period that included unification of conservative north and Marxist south Yemen, civil war, uprisings, Islamist militant campaigns and tribal feuds.

But he was forced from power in 2012 after an Arab Spring uprising that left him wounded by an attempted assassination, leading to a Saudi-brokered political transition.

He fled to Saudi Arabia, his former ally, for treatment of his injuries and the princes in Riyadh allowed him to return to Yemen months later – something they came to bitterly regret as he undermined the transition plan and later joined the Houthis.

That set the stage for his final role – that of ally to the Houthi movement which he had previously fought six times during his own presidency, and to Iran, the Houthis’ political backer.

But Houthi and Saleh loyalist forces jostled for supremacy over the territory they ran together, including Sanaa, which the Houthis seized in September 2014, and their feud burst into open combat on Nov. 29.

The maneuvering ended on Monday, as footage circulating on social media appeared to show his corpse, a deep wound in the side of its head, wrapped in a red blanket and being loaded onto a pick-up truck as tribal fighters waved their weapons.

“Praise God!” and “Hey Ali Affash!” (another name for Saleh) they were shouting.

Officials in his own General People’s Congress party said Saleh was killed outside Sanaa in an RPG and gun assault on his convoy along with the GPC’s assistant secretary general Yasser al-Awadi.

His death was confirmed by Saleh’s nephew and former chief of Yemen’s security forces, Yahya Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, who hailed him as a martyr on his official Facebook page.

 

STREET BATTLES EASE IN SANAA

Residents reported that the situation in Sanaa had calmed. Most people were indoors, and streets were deserted amid a state of fear as the Houthis asserted full control. Saudi-led aircraft continued to fly overhead.

Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul Salam claimed significant gains in the battle for Sanaa on Monday.

“With the aid and approval of God, the security forces backed up by wide popular support were able last night to cleanse the areas in which the militias of treason and betrayal were deployed,” he said in a statement.

The Houthi movement’s TV channel al-Masirah and witnesses said Houthi fighters had seized the downtown home of Saleh’s nephew Tareq, an army general.

Residents said the warring sides traded heavy automatic and artillery fire as the Houthis advanced in the central Political District, which is a redoubt of Saleh and his family.

“We lived through days of terror. Houthi tanks have been firing and the shells were falling on our neighborhood,” said Mohammed al-Madhaji, who lives in the frontline district.

“The fighting has been so violent we feel we could die at any moment. We can’t get out of our homes.”

Houthi media and political sources also reported the Houthis advancing towards Saleh’s birthplace in a village outside Sanaa where he maintained a fortified palace.

Saleh cultivated Yemen’s national army for decades and put key units under the command of relatives, but the speed of the Houthis’ apparent gains over his partisans indicates they have a strong upper hand in the lands they once held together.

Nearly three years of Houthi control over key ministries and state media has helped convert much of Yemeni society toward their brand of religiously-inspired militarism while key tribal and military commanders did not flock to Saleh’s uprising.

This may mean that Houthi positions in nationwide battlefronts against pro-Saudi forces will remain robust with the overall stalemate dragging on.

 

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Noah Browning, Angus McDowall and Samia Nakhoul; editing by Mark Heinrich)