Yemen famine could threaten opportunity for peace, U.N. warns

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A massive famine could wipe out a new opportunity, created by renewed U.S. engagement, to end the war in Yemen, top U.N. officials told the Security Council on Thursday.

U.N. Yemen mediator Martin Griffiths also called for a stop to an offensive by the Houthi movement on the government-held city of Marib, warning “the quest for territorial gain by force threatens all of the prospects of the peace process.”

U.S. President Joe Biden has made ending the conflict in Yemen a priority since taking office last month, appointing a special envoy and ending U.S. support for offensive operations by Saudi Arabia in neighboring Yemen.

“International support for ending the conflict is indispensable, and this offers us a new opportunity to reopen space for a negotiated solution,” Griffiths told the 15-member Security Council.

However, U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock then warned: “There’s an important opportunity right now to help Yemen move towards lasting peace … but that opportunity will disappear, it will be wasted, if Yemen tips into a massive famine.”

The United Nations describes Yemen as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with 80% of the people in need of help.

A Saudi-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015, backing government forces fighting the Iran-aligned Houthis. The more than six-year-long conflict is widely seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Griffiths visited Tehran this month for the first time since becoming the U.N. envoy three years ago. He made no reference to his visit during his public Security Council statement.

He said the warring parties needed to immediately agree to a nationwide ceasefire, allow the unhindered flow of fuel and other commodities into Hodeidah port and permit international commercial traffic to use Sanaa airport. Griffiths said these issues had been discussed regularly for the past year.

“What is needed is simply and fundamentally the political will to end this conflict. We know need a decision,” he said.

Lowcock said some $4 billion was needed in 2021 to fund humanitarian operations as “Yemen is speeding towards the worst famine the world has seen in decades.” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Switzerland and Sweden plan to convene a pledging conference on March 1 to raise funds for Yemen.

When famine loomed in 2019, Lowcock said it was averted after the United Nations received about 90 percent of the $4 billion it requested. But last year the world body only received about $1.9 billion, about half of what it needed.

Lowcock said some 16 million people in Yemen were going hungry and 5 million of those people are “just one step away from famine.”

Some 400,000 children under the age of 5 are severely malnourished, he said. “Those children are in their last weeks and months,” he warned. “They are starving to death.”

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Cynthia Osterman)

U.N. envoy, Iran’s Zarif discuss how to end war in Yemen

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) – United Nations Yemen mediator Martin Griffiths and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif discussed on Monday how to make progress toward a nationwide ceasefire and reviving the political process in Yemen, a U.N. spokesman said.

A Saudi-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015, backing government forces fighting the Iran-aligned Houthis. The more than six-year long conflict is widely seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

It is Griffiths first visit to Iran since becoming the U.N. envoy three years ago.

Zarif and Griffiths “exchanged views on Yemen and how to make progress towards a resumption of the political process,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

“Mr. Zarif and Mr. Griffiths further discussed the urgent need to make progress towards a nationwide ceasefire, the opening of Sanaa airport and the easing of restrictions on Hodeidah ports.”

He added that Griffiths welcomed Iran’s expression of support for the U.N. efforts to end the conflict in Yemen.

While Griffiths office said the visit to Iran had been planned for some time, it comes after new U.S. President Joe Biden declared last week that the war in Yemen “has to end” and said Washington would halt support for the Saudi Arabia-led military campaign against the Houthis.

The United States also said on Friday it intends to revoke its terrorist designation of the Houthis to avoid worsening Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. The United Nations describes Yemen as the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis, with 80% of its people in need and millions on the verge of famine.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Alex Richardson)

U.S. exempts U.N., aid groups from effort to cut off Yemen’s Houthis

By Daphne Psaledakis and Michelle Nichols

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – The United States on Tuesday exempted aid groups, the United Nations, the Red Cross and the export of agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices from its designation of Yemen’s Houthi movement as a foreign terrorist organization.

The carve-outs are not enough to allay U.N. fears that Washington’s move would push Yemen into a large-scale famine. The United Nations describes Yemen as the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis, with 80% of its people in need.

“Our concern from the beginning … is the impact on the commercial sector and that the vast majority of food and other basic supplies that come into Yemen comes in through the commercial sector,” said U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

U.N. officials and aid groups said the designation will scare off commercial trade in Yemen, which relies almost solely on imports, creating a gap the humanitarian operation cannot fill regardless of U.S. humanitarian exemptions.

The United States has exempted the export to Yemen of agricultural commodities. Its description of that includes food for people, including raw, processed, and packaged foods, live animals, vitamins and minerals, and bottled drinking water.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the move against the Iran-aligned Houthis last week and it took effect on Tuesday, one day before Democratic President-elect Joe Biden succeeds Republican President Donald Trump.

A Saudi Arabia-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015, backing government forces fighting the Houthis in a war widely seen as a proxy conflict between U.S. ally Saudi Arabia and Iran. U.N. officials are trying to revive peace talks to end the war as Yemen’s suffering is also worsened by an economic collapse and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The designation freezes any U.S.-related assets of the Houthis, bans Americans from doing business with them and makes it a crime to provide support or resources to the movement.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols and Daphne Psaledakis; writing by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool)

Yemeni boy, ravaged by hunger, weighs 7 kg

SANAA (Reuters) -Paralyzed and severely malnourished, seven-year-old Faid Samim lies curled up on a hospital bed in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, having barely survived the journey there. “He was almost gone when he arrived but thank God we were able to do what was necessary and he started improving. He is suffering from CP (cerebral palsy) and severe malnutrition,” said Rageh Mohammed, the supervising doctor of the Al-Sabeen hospital’s malnutrition ward. Faid weighs only 7 kg (just over 15 lb) and his tiny, fragile frame takes up barely a quarter of a folded hospital blanket. His family had to travel from Al-Jawf, 170 km (105 miles) north of Sanaa, through checkpoints and damaged roads, to get him there. Unable to afford Faid’s medication or treatment, the family relies on donations to get him treated. Mohammed says malnutrition cases are on the rise and impoverished parents are forced to rely on the kindness of strangers or international aid to get their children treated.

Famine has never been officially declared in Yemen, where a six-year war has left 80% of the population reliant on aid in what the U.N. says is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

U.N. warnings in late 2018 of impending famine prompted an aid ramp-up. But coronavirus restrictions, reduced remittances, locusts, floods and significant underfunding of the 2020 aid response are exacerbating hunger.

The war in Yemen, in which a Saudi-led coalition has been battling the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement since 2015, has killed more than 100,000 people and left the country divided, with the Houthis holding Sanaa and most major urban centers.

(Reporting by Adel Khadr, Abdulrahman Ansi and Tarek FahmyEditing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Giles Elgood)

U.N. chief warns Yemen in imminent danger of famine

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned on Friday that war-torn Yemen “is now in imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen for decades.”

Guterres warning comes as the United States threatens to blacklist Yemen’s Iran-allied Houthi group as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran. Aid workers have raised fears such a move would prevent life-saving aid reaching the country.

“I urge all those with influence to act urgently on these issues to stave off catastrophe, and I also request that everyone avoids taking any action that could make the already dire situation even worse,” Guterres said in a statement.

A Saudi Arabia-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015, backing government forces fighting the Houthi group. U.N. officials are trying to revive peace talks to end the war as the country’s suffering is also worsened by an economic and currency collapse and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In the absence of immediate action, millions of lives may be lost,” Guterres said.

The United Nations describes Yemen as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with 80% of the people in need of help.

A senior Western diplomat said a designation of the Houthis by the United States designated the Houthis “would certainly not contribute to progress on Yemen.”

“It’s likely that they want to do whatever it takes to increase the pressure on Iran,” said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock has said the United Nations has received less than half of what it needed this year – about $1.5 billion – for its humanitarian operations in Yemen. Last year it received $3 billion.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Saudis seek buffer zone with Yemen in return for ceasefire, sources say

By Aziz El Yaakoubi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia has told Yemen’s Houthis in high-level back channel talks it would sign a UN proposal for a nationwide ceasefire if the Iran-aligned group agrees to a buffer zone along the kingdom’s borders, three sources familiar with the matter said.

If a deal is struck, it would mark the biggest breakthrough in efforts to reach a political settlement since the conflict – widely seen as a proxy war between arch-enemies Saudi Arabia and Iran – began in 2014.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden pledged in his election campaign to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the Middle East’s biggest buyer of American weapons, to pressure Riyadh to end the war that has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

But the Houthis, who control northern Yemen and its biggest populated areas, may be less willing to cooperate with Saudi Arabia if President Donald Trump carries out threats to designate them as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) before leaving office, the sources said.

Washington and Riyadh see the Yemeni group as an extension of Iranian influence in the region.

A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis’ spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

Recently the two parties, holding virtual discussions, raised the level of representation in the talks, with Mohammed Abdulsalam, the Houthis’ chief negotiator, and a more senior Saudi official, two of the sources said.

Riyadh has demanded more security assurances from the Houthis, including a buffer zone along the borders with northern Yemen until a U.N.-backed transitional government is formed, the sources said.

Riyadh wants Houthi forces to leave a corridor along the Saudi borders to prevent incursions and artillery fire.

In exchange, the kingdom would ease an air and sea blockade as part of the U.N. proposal for a ceasefire, which already includes an end to cross-border attacks.

Last year, Riyadh launched indirect talks with the Houthis, as it seeks a way out of the conflict that has drawn criticism from Biden, killed tens of thousands of people and tarnished the reputation of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The talks have stalled over the last two months, the sources said, as fighting escalated in the gas-rich region of Marib, where the Houthis have launched an offensive to drive out Saudi-backed forces.

Marib is the last stronghold of the internationally-recognized government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which was ousted from power in the capital, Sanaa, by the Houthis in late 2014.

That prompted the Saudi-led coalition, which also includes the United Arab Emirates, to intervene.

Complicating matters, the fighting fragmented, spawning a multi-layered war that has lasted nearly six years.

‘CONSULTATIONS ON IRAN’

Trump’s administration, to support the Saudis, has exerted pressure on the Houthis by threatening to designate the group as a terrorist organization, said two of the three sources, who declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Any decision by Washington to blacklist the Houthis, part of its “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran, would be “devastating” after years of peace efforts led by U.N. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths and other Western ambassadors, they added.

One of the sources said that experts in the U.S. administration have advised Trump against an FTO designation.

The State Department did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

The discreet talks between the kingdom and the Houthis have dragged on for more than a year, in parallel with Griffiths’ efforts to reach an agreement on a ceasefire.

The U.N. is working to secure a face-to-face meeting before the end of the year, as well as an agreement on a joint declaration that would halt all air, ground and naval hostilities, two of the sources said.

Europe would be a logical venue for them to meet, one of the sources said, as the U.N. seeks neutral grounds for the talks. Griffith’s office declined to comment.

(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Coronavirus deaths rise above a million in ‘agonizing’ global milestone

By Jane Wardell

(Reuters) – The global coronavirus death toll rose past a million on Tuesday, according to a Reuters tally, a grim statistic in a pandemic that has devastated the global economy, overloaded health systems and changed the way people live.

The number of deaths from the novel coronavirus this year is now double the number of people who die annually from malaria – and the death rate has increased in recent weeks as infections surge in several countries.

“Our world has reached an agonizing milestone,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement.

“It’s a mind-numbing figure. Yet we must never lose sight of each and every individual life. They were fathers and mothers, wives and husbands, brothers and sisters, friends and colleagues.”

It took just three months for COVID-19 deaths to double from half a million, an accelerating rate of fatalities since the first death was recorded in China in early January.

More than 5,400 people are dying around the world every 24 hours, according to Reuters calculations based on September averages, overwhelming funeral businesses and cemeteries.

That equates to about 226 people an hour, or one person every 16 seconds. In the time it takes to watch a 90-minute soccer match, 340 people die on average.

(Reuters interactive graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/2VqS5PS)

“So many people have lost so many people and haven’t had the chance to say goodbye,” World Health Organization (WHO) spokeswoman Margaret Harris told a U.N. briefing in Geneva.

“…Many, many of the people who died died alone in medical circumstances where it’s a terribly difficult and lonely death.”

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the world had to unite to fight the virus.

“History will judge us on the decisions we do and don’t make in the months ahead,” he said in the Independent newspaper.

INFECTIONS RISING

Experts remain concerned that the official figures for deaths and cases globally significantly under-represent the real tally because of inadequate testing and recording and the possibility of concealment by some countries.

The response to the pandemic has pitted proponents of health measures like lockdowns against those intent on sustaining politically sensitive economic growth, with approaches differing from country to country.

The United States, Brazil and India, which together account for nearly 45% of all COVID-19 deaths globally, have all lifted social distancing measures in recent weeks.

“The American people should anticipate that cases will rise in the days ahead,” U.S. Vice President Mike Pence warned on Monday. U.S. deaths stood at 205,132 and cases at 7.18 million by late Monday.

India, meanwhile, has recorded the highest daily growth in infections in the world, with an average of 87,500 new cases a day since the beginning of September.

On current trends, India will overtake the United States as the country with the most confirmed cases by the end of the year, even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government pushes ahead with easing lockdown measures in a bid to support a struggling economy.

Despite the surge in cases, India’s death toll of 96,318, and pace of growth of fatalities, remains below those of the United States, Britain and Brazil. India on Tuesday reported its smallest rise in deaths since Aug. 3, continuing a recent easing trend that has baffled experts.

In Europe, which accounts for nearly 25% of deaths, the WHO has warned of a worrying spread in western Europe just weeks away from the winter flu season.

The WHO has also warned the pandemic still needs major control interventions amid rising cases in Latin America, where many countries have started to resume normal life.

Much of Asia, the first region affected by the pandemic, is experiencing a relative lull after emerging from a second wave.

The high number of deaths has led to changes burial rites around the world, with morgues and funeral businesses overwhelmed and loved ones often barred from bidding farewell in person.

In Israel, the custom of washing the bodies of Muslim deceased is not permitted, and instead of being shrouded in cloth, they must be wrapped in a plastic body bag. The Jewish tradition of Shiva where people go to the home of mourning relatives for seven days has also been disrupted.

In Italy, Catholics have been buried without funerals or a blessing from a priest, while in Iraq former militiamen dropped their guns to dig graves at a specially created cemetery and learned how to conduct both Christian and Muslim burials.

In some parts of Indonesia, bereaved families have barged into hospitals to claim bodies, fearing their relatives might not be given a proper burial.

The United States, Indonesia, Bolivia, South Africa and Yemen have all had to locate new burial sites as cemeteries fill up.

(Reporting by Jane Wardell; additional reporting by Shaina Ahluwalia, Seerat Gupta and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)

COVID-19 can wipe out health care progress in short order: WHO

By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – More than 90% of countries have seen ordinary health services disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with major gains in medical care attained over decades vulnerable to being wiped out in a short period, a World Health Organization survey showed.

The Geneva-based body has frequently warned about other life-saving programs being impacted by the pandemic and has sent countries mitigation advice, but the survey yielded the first WHO data so far on the scale of disruptions.

“The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on essential health services is a source of great concern,” said a report on the study released on Monday. “Major health gains achieved over the past two decades can be wiped out in a short period of time…”

The survey includes responses from between May and July from more than 100 countries. Among the most affected services were routine immunizations (70%), family planning (68%) and cancer diagnosis and treatment (55%), while emergency services were disturbed in almost a quarter of responding countries.

The Eastern Mediterranean Region, which includes Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen, was most affected followed by the African and Southeast Asian regions, it showed. The Americas was not part of the survey.

Since COVID-19 cases were first identified in December last year, the virus is thought to have killed nearly 850,000 people, the latest Reuters tally showed.

Researchers think that non-COVID deaths have also increased in some places due partly to health service disruptions, although these may be harder to calculate.

The WHO survey said it was “reasonable to anticipate that even a modest disruption in essential health services could lead to an increase in morbidity and mortality from causes other than COVID-19 in the short to medium and long-term.” Further research was needed.

It also warned that the disruptions could be felt even after the pandemic ends. “The impact may be felt beyond the immediate pandemic as, in trying to catch up on services, countries may find that resources are overwhelmed.”

(Reporting by Emma Farge; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Running out of time: East Africa faces new locust threat

By Omar Mohammed and Dawit Endeshaw

NAIROBI/ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Countries in East Africa are racing against time to prevent new swarms of locusts wreaking havoc with crops and livelihoods after the worst infestation in generations.

A lack of expertise in controlling the pests is not their only problem: Kenya temporarily ran out of pesticides, Ethiopia needs more planes and Somalia and Yemen, torn by civil war, can’t guarantee exterminators’ safety.

Locust swarms have been recorded in the region since biblical times, but unusual weather patterns exacerbated by climate change have created ideal conditions for insect numbers to surge, scientists say.

Warmer seas are creating more rain, wakening dormant eggs, and cyclones that disperse the swarms are getting stronger and more frequent.

In Ethiopia the locusts have reached the fertile Rift Valley farmland and stripped grazing grounds in Kenya and Somalia. Swarms can travel up to 150 km (93 miles) a day and contain between 40-80 million locusts per square kilometer.

If left unchecked, the number of locusts in East Africa could explode 400-fold by June. That would devastate harvests in a region with more than 19 million hungry people, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has warned.

Uganda has deployed the military. Kenya has trained hundreds of youth cadets to spray. Lacking pesticides, some security forces in Somalia have shot anti-aircraft guns at swarms darkening the skies.

Everyone is racing the rains expected in March: the next generation of larvae is already wriggling from the ground, just as farmers plant their seeds.

“The second wave is coming,” said Cyril Ferrand, FAO’s head of resilience for Eastern Africa. “As crops are planted, locusts will eat everything.”

The impact so far on agriculture, which generates about a third of East Africa’s economic output, is unknown, but FAO is using satellite images to assess the damage, he said.

FILE PHOTO: A swarm of desert locusts flies over a ranch near the town on Nanyuki in Laikipia county, Kenya, February 21, 2020. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

PESTICIDE SHORTAGES

In Kenya, the region’s wealthiest and most stable country, the locusts are mostly in the semi-arid north, although some crops have been affected, said Stanley Kipkoech, a senior official at the Ministry of Agriculture.

This month, Kenya ran out of pesticide for about a week and a half, he said. Farmers watched helplessly as their families’ crops were devoured.

In Ethiopia, the government can only afford to rent four planes for aerial spraying, but it needs at least twice that number to contain the outbreak before harvesting begins in March, Zebdewos Salato, director of plant protection at the Ministry of Agriculture, told Reuters.

“We are running out of time,” he said.

Ethiopia’s single pesticide factory is working flat out.

The country needs 500,000 liters for the upcoming harvest and planting season but is struggling to produce its maximum 200,000 liters after foreign exchange shortages delayed the purchase of chemicals, the factory’s chief executive Simeneh Altaye said.

FAO is helping the government to procure planes, vehicles and sprayers, said Fatouma Seid, the agency’s representative in Ethiopia. It is also urgently trying to buy pesticides from Europe.

MONEY AND GUNS

Pest controllers in Somalia can’t enter areas controlled by the Islamist al Shabaab insurgency, said Aidid Suleiman Hashi, environment minister for the southern region of Jubbaland.

When the locusts invaded, residents blew horns, beat drums and rang bells to scare away the insects. Al Shabaab fired anti-craft and machine guns at the swarms, Hashi said. Jubbaland forces, not to be outdone, did so too.

Under such circumstances, contractors are reluctant to do aerial spraying, FAO said.

Meanwhile, locusts – which have a life cycle of three months – are breeding. FAO says each generation is an average of 20 times more numerous.

When eggs hatch, as they are doing now in northern Kenya, the hungry young locusts are earthbound for two weeks and more vulnerable to spraying than when they grow wings.

After that, they take to the air in swarms so dense they have forced aircraft to divert. A single square kilometer swarm can eat as much food in a day as 35,000 people.

FAO said containing the plague will cost at least $138 million. So far, donors have pledged $52 million. Failure means more hunger in a region already battered by conflict and climate shocks.

Since 2016, there have been droughts in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, then floods, Ferrand said. In South Sudan, more than half the population already faces food shortages.

CLIMATE CHANGE

The rains that blessed the region with a bumper crop last year after a prolonged drought also brought a curse.

A cyclical weather pattern in the Indian Ocean, intensified by rising sea temperatures, contributed to one of the wettest October-December rainy seasons in five decades, said Nathanial Matthews of the Stockholm-based Global Resilience Partnership, a public-private partnership focused on climate change.

Locusts hatched in Yemen, largely ignored in the chaos of the civil war. They migrated across the Red Sea to the Horn of Africa, then spread to Sudan, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. Now they have been spotted in Uganda, South Sudan and Tanzania.

The rains awoke the dormant eggs then stronger and more numerous cyclones scattered the insects. Eight cyclones tore across the Indian Ocean in 2019, the highest number in a single year since records began, said Matthews.

(Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu, Abdiqani Hassan in Garowe, Somalia, Denis Dumo in Juba; Writing by Omar Mohammed; Editing by Katharine Houreld, Alexandra Zavis and Mike Collett-White)

Trump orders more Iran curbs, Saudi shows attack evidence

By Stephen Kalin and Parisa Hafezi

JEDDAH/DUBAI (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday said he ordered a major increase in sanctions on Iran as Saudi Arabia displayed remnants of drones and missiles it said Tehran used in a crippling weekend attack on its oil facilities.

Trump gave no explanation in a brief Twitter posting announcing the order, but the initiative follows repeated U.S. assertions that the Islamic Republic was behind Saturday’s attack on the kingdom, a close U.S. ally.

“I have just instructed the Secretary of the Treasury to substantially increase sanctions on the country of Iran!,” he wrote.

Iran, however, again denied involvement in the Sept. 14 raids, which hit the world’s biggest crude processing facility and initially knocked out half of Saudi production.

“They want to impose maximum … pressure on Iran through slander,” Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said.

“We don’t want conflict in the region … Who started the conflict?” he added, blaming Washington and its Gulf allies for the war in Yemen.

Yemen’s Houthi movement, an ally of Iran battling a Western-backed, Saudi-led coalition for more than four years, has claimed responsibility and said it used drones to assault state oil company Aramco’s sites.

However, the Saudi Defense Ministry held a news conference, displaying drone and missile debris it said was “undeniable” evidence of Iranian aggression. A total of 25 drones and missiles were used in the attacks launched from Iran not Yemen, the ministry spokesman added.

Saturday’s attack exposed the vulnerability of Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure and threw down a gauntlet to the United States, which wants to curb Tehran’s influence in the region.

Proof of Iranian responsibility could pressure Riyadh and Washington into a response, though both nations were stressing the need for caution.

Trump has said he does not want war and is coordinating with Gulf and European states.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said the hit on the world’s biggest crude exporter was a “real test of the global will” to confront subversion of the international order.

His envoy to London, Prince Khalid bin Bander, told the BBC the attack was “almost certainly” Iranian-backed, however: “We’re trying not to react too quickly because the last thing we need is more conflict in the region.”

“COMPELLING EVIDENCE”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was to meet Prince Mohammed in Jeddah on Wednesday to discuss the crisis before heading to the United Arab Emirates.

U.N. officials monitoring sanctions on Iran and Yemen were also heading to Saudi Arabia to investigate.

France, which is trying to salvage an international nuclear deal with Iran that Washington quit last year, said it wanted to establish the facts before reacting.

A U.S. official told Reuters the strikes originated in southwestern Iran. Three officials said they involved cruise missiles and drones, indicating a higher degree of complexity and sophistication than initially thought.

The officials did not provide evidence or explain what U.S. intelligence they were using for evaluating the attack, which cut 5% of global production.

Saudi Arabia said on Tuesday the 5.7 million barrels per day of output lost would be fully restored by the end of the month.

Oil prices fell after the Saudi reassurances, having surged more than 20% at one point on Monday – the biggest intra-day jump since the 1990-91 Gulf War. [O/R]

Saudi Arabia’s finance minister told Reuters on Wednesday the attack had no impact on revenues and Aramco was continuing to supply markets without interruption.

U.S. efforts to bring about a U.N. Security Council response look unlikely to succeed as Russia and China have veto powers and are expected to shield Iran.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has offered to sell Riyadh defense systems, called for a “thorough and impartial” probe during a phone call with Prince Mohammed.

The assault exposed serious gaps in Saudi air defense despite billions of dollars spent on Western military hardware and repeated attacks on vital assets during its four-and-a-half year foray into the Yemen war.

“The attack is like Sept. 11th for Saudi Arabia, it is a game changer,” said one Saudi security analyst.

IRAN-U.S. CONFLICT

Already frayed U.S.-Iran ties deteriorated further when Trump quit the nuclear pact and reimposed sanctions, severely hurting the Iranian economy. Iran has ruled out talks with Washington unless it returns to the pact.

Trump said he is not looking to meet Rouhani during a U.N. event in New York this month. Rouhani and his foreign minister may not attend the General Assembly at all unless U.S. visas are issued in the coming hours, state media reported Wednesday.

Washington and its Gulf allies want Iran to stop supporting regional proxies, including in Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon.

Despite years of air strikes against them, the Houthi movement boasts drones and missiles able to reach deep into Saudi Arabia, the result of an arms race since the Western-backed coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015.

Iran’s clerical rulers support the Houthis, who ousted Yemen’s internationally recognized government from power in the capital Sanaa in late 2014. But Tehran denies it actively supports them with military and financial support.

Iran maintains the largest ballistic and cruise missile capabilities in the Middle East that could overwhelm virtually any Saudi missile defense system, according to think-tank CSIS, given the geographic proximity of Tehran and its proxy forces.

But even more limited strikes have proved too much for Saudi Arabia, including recent ones claimed by the Houthis on a civilian airport, oil pumping stations and the Shaybah oilfield.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai and Stephen Kalin in Jeddah; Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge in London, Michelle Nichols in New York, Rania El Gamal, Davide Barbuscia and Marwa Rashad in Riyadh, Asma Alsharif and Sylvia Westall in Dubai, Alaa Swilam and Hisham El Saba in Cairo, Maria Kiselyova in Moscow; Tim Kelly in Tokyo, John Irish and Sudip Kar-Gupta in Paris, Phil Stewart and Steve Holland in Washington; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and William Maclean)