Yemeni farmers urgently need support to help ease hunger crisis: U.N

a Yemeni woman holds her malnourished son

By Alex Whiting

ROME (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In the midst of one of the world’s worst hunger crises, Yemen’s farmers urgently need support so they can grow more food and provide young people with jobs, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said.

Nearly two years of war between a Saudi-led Arab coalition and the Iran-allied Houthi movement has left more than half of Yemen’s 28 million people facing hunger, its economy in ruins and food supplies disrupted.

Nearly half of Yemen’s 22 governorates are officially rated as being in an emergency food situation, which is four on a five-point scale, where five is famine, the United Nations said last month.

“People’s access to food is rapidly worsening and urgent action is needed,” said Salah Hajj Hassan, FAO representative in Yemen.

About two-thirds of the population depends on agriculture for their survival, and it is one of the only sectors of the economy still functioning after years of war, according to FAO.

But farming has been devastated by the conflict, and rural communities need help to restore crops and livestock, the U.N. agency said.

This is especially true for those living in remote or conflict-hit areas which are frequently cut off from food aid, FAO said.

Pressure on rural communities has increased as people fled fighting in the cities to stay with friends or relatives in the countryside, Hajj Hassan said.

Supporting farmers will not only ease hunger levels, it may also help prevent the conflict from worsening.

“From a security point of view, if we don’t give those people the chance to work, what alternatives will young people have?” Hajj Hassan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Yemen’s early warning system also needs to be bolstered so that authorities and aid agencies can monitor changes in hunger levels, and get early information about drought, locust infestations, cyclones and floods – which are frequent visitors to the impoverished country.

“It is absolutely critical for the authorities and the people themselves to … be able to monitor these shocks so … they can take early action to prevent it from turning into a big disaster,” Dominique Burgeon, director of FAO’s emergency and rehabilitation division, said earlier this month.

“In terms of numbers, Yemen is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world,” he said.

The European Union has given 12 million euros to help 150,000 farmers, and to collect more data on people’s access to food, FAO said this week.

(Reporting by Alex Whiting @Alexwhi, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/food)

New York man gets 13 years prison for trying to join al Qaeda

New York high school senior trying to join al Qaeda

By Nate Raymond

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A New York man was sentenced on Tuesday to 13 years in prison for trying to join the Islamic militant group al Qaeda when he was a high school senior.

Justin Kaliebe, now 22, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Denis Hurley in Central Islip, New York, after pleading guilty in February 2013 to having attempted to provide material support to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Kaliebe had been arrested a month earlier at John F. Kennedy International Airport, where prosecutors said he planned to board a flight to Muscat, Oman, as part of his plot to eventually travel to Yemen.

The defendant was also sentenced to 20 years of supervised release.

“I am disappointed and feel that a lesser sentence was warranted,” Kaliebe’s lawyer Anthony LaPinta said in an email.

“Justin is a harmless young man who had many psychological, medical and personal issues that contributed to his criminal conduct,” LaPinta continued. “Justin will make the best of his time in prison. I am certain that he will emerge as a rehabilitated, productive and respected member of society.”

Federal authorities have estimated that 80 percent of Americans linked to activities supporting militant Islamic movements have radicalized themselves with information from the internet.

Prosecutors said Kaliebe, a resident of Babylon, New York, began his plot in 2011, and told an undercover law enforcement operative the following year that he was “doing the J word,” or violent “jihad.”

In June 2012, Kaliebe was recorded as saying that upon arriving in Yemen, he expected to fight “those who are fighting against the Sharia of Allah,” be it the Yemeni army or U.S. forces, prosecutors said.

Kaliebe received support from Marcos Alonso Zea, another Long Island resident who according to prosecutors attempted to fly to Yemen in January 2012 but was intercepted by British customs officials and returned to the United States.

Zea, 28, was arrested in October 2013 and sentenced in April 2015 to 25 years in prison, after pleading guilty to attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Tom Brown)

Yemen traders halt new wheat imports as famine approaches

A malnourished boy lies on a bed at a malnutrition intensive care unit in the Red Sea port city of Houdeidah, Yemen

By Jonathan Saul and Maha El Dahan

LONDON/ABU DHABI (Reuters) – Yemen’s biggest traders have stopped new wheat imports due to a crisis at the central bank, documents seen by Reuters show, another blow to the war-torn country where millions are suffering acute malnutrition.

Nearly two years of war between a Saudi-led Arab coalition and the Iran-allied Houthi movement has left more than half of Yemen’s 28 million people “food insecure”, with 7 million of them enduring hunger, according to the United Nations.

At the same time, aid agencies are warning that Yemen – the Arabian peninsula’s poorest country – is on the verge of famine, although they have yet to declare one.

Trade and aid sources say the situation was compounded in September when Yemen’s exiled president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, ordered the central bank’s headquarters moved from the capital Sanaa, controlled by Houthi rebels in the north, to the southern port of Aden, the seat of the new government.

This has led in effect to a de facto partition, with rival institutions in the north and south.

Hadi’s government said the Houthis had squandered some $4 billion on the war effort from central bank reserves; the Houthis said the funds financed imports of food and medicine.

In a Nov. 30 letter addressed to Yemen’s trade ministry in Saana, which the company had dealt with before Hadi’s decree to move, leading trader Fahem Group, said: “We would like to inform you that we have been unable to conduct any new contracts for wheat as local banks cannot transfer dollars for the value of any wheat cargoes.”

Fahem Group said in the letter, seen by Reuters, that it wanted to continue importing wheat to cover the population’s needs but was unable to open letters of credit.

Bread forms a major part of people’s diet in Yemen.

Even before the move, the central bank, aiming to shore up dwindling foreign currency, had stopped providing guarantees for importers, leaving them to finance shipments themselves.

Saudi Arabia and allied Sunni Muslim Gulf states began a military campaign in March last year to prevent the Houthis and forces loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh taking control of the whole country after they ousted Hadi in late 2014.

Fahem Group imported an estimated 1.2 million tonnes of wheat into the Red Sea port of Saleef between April 2015 and April 2016, which accounted for between 30 to 40 percent of Yemen’s total wheat imports, according to trade estimates.

A separate letter, also addressed to the Houthi-run authorities in Sanaa by major importer Hayel Saeed Group and other large traders, said those firms had stopped new wheat shipments and urged resolution of the financing problems. Together, those groups accounted for almost all the rest of the wheat imports.

CENTRAL BANK CRISIS

A source with the central bank in the Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa said it had no access to foreign reserves at all.

“Importers will have to turn to the Aden central bank for access. This is something outside of its control,” the source said. “Wheat imports have stopped since a little less than a month (ago) and the reserves are around two months now as some prior deals are arriving.”

The trade ministry in Sanaa did not respond to requests for comment.

Monasser al Quaiti, the governor of the central bank in Aden, and the trade ministry in Aden could not be reached for comment. Quaiti, who was appointed by Hadi, has previously said the bank has no money.

Jamie McGoldrick, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, told Reuters, when contacted about the letters: “With this notification by these food importers, they are going to find it challenging, difficult, and maybe even impossible to bring in the wheat for a period of time now.”

Aid agencies are bringing in wheat, but can only cover a fraction of food import requirements, partly due to a lack of funding.

When asked for comment, Brigadier General Ahmed al-Asseri, spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, said the Houthis were deliberately blocking wheat and aid shipments, pointing to cargoes being held up at the Red Sea port of Hodeidah.

“The Houthis try to play this card of the starvation of people to gain more international media attention,” he told Reuters.

The rebel Houthis have accused Saudi Arabia and its allies of imposing a blockade on Yemen. Representatives for the Houthis could not be reached for comment.

FOOD CRISIS

Supplies are still reaching many parts of Yemen including Hodeidah and Aden, but other areas particularly Ta’iz in the south, Sa’ada in the north, Shabwah in the center and Al Maharah in the east have struggled to get deliveries due to fighting, data from UN agencies showed.

More recently there were shortages of vegetable oil, wheat flour and sugar in those areas, although precise details were not available from any agency.

The price of wheat flour and sugar were about 25 percent higher in November on average across Yemen than they were before the conflict, the data showed. The volume of fuel imported in November was only 40 percent of Yemen’s monthly requirements.

U.N. children’s agency UNICEF has said malnutrition among children is at an all-time high with nearly 2.2 million in need of urgent care – a spike of almost 200 percent since 2014.

Salah Hajj Hassan, representative in Yemen for UN food agency FAO, said the decision to transfer the central bank to Aden “will have a devastating effect on the already deteriorating economic performance”.

“Traders who are engaged in importing food are worried that, unless, alternative arrangement is foreseen, this decision will leave them financially exposed and make it harder to bring in supplies in Yemen,” Hassan told Reuters.

Aid group Oxfam warned this month that based on current food imports, Yemen will run out of food in a few months.

“Yemen is being slowly starved to death,” said Mark Goldring, chief executive of Oxfam GB.

Shipping and aid sources said even ships that are prepared to berth must wait in line to offload their cargoes. This, together with mounting insurance costs and uncertainty about exchange rates and accepted currencies at the ports, has led to more delays, and higher and more volatile prices.

The United Nations say both sides are holding up aid deliveries and set up its own verification and inspection mechanisms at the start of this year to try to solve the problem.

(Additional reporting by Mohamed Ghobari, William Maclean and Tom Miles; graphic by Christian Inton; editing by William Maclean, Veronica Brown and Philippa Fletcher)

U.N. launches record $22.2 billion humanitarian appeal for 2017

War in Aleppo

By Umberto Bacchi

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The United Nations launched a record humanitarian appeal on Monday, asking for $22.2 billion in 2017 to help almost 93 million people hit by conflicts and natural disasters.

More than half of the money will be used to address the needs of people caught up in crises in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and South Sudan, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said.

The appeal followed a trend of steady increases that have seen requests for funds grow almost three-fold from $7.9 billion in 2011.

“The scale of humanitarian crises today is greater than at any time since the United Nations was founded,” U.N. humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien said in a statement.

“Not in living memory have so many people needed our support and solidarity to survive and live in safety and dignity”.

Several countries, including Afghanistan, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia have issued emergency appeals almost annually for the past 25 years and some faced worsening crises in 2017, the U.N. said.

In 2016, the U.N. sought $22.1 billion, having initially appealed for $20.1 billion but a shortfall in donations meant the appeal was only 51 percent funded as of Nov. 30.

“Sadly, with persistently escalating humanitarian needs, the gap between what has to be done to save and protect more people today and what humanitarians are financed to do and can access is growing ever wider,” OCHA head O’Brien wrote.

As humanitarian needs continue to rise, aid workers are increasingly at risk of targeted attacks and their efforts are hampered by reduced access, growing disrespect for human rights and flagrant violations of international humanitarian law, O’Brien said.

In Syria, humanitarian needs were expected to “grow exponentially” if no political solution was found to the nearly six-year-old conflict, with 13.5 million people requiring aid.

In Afghanistan, where government forces are struggling to contain a Taliban insurgency, 1.8 million people, mostly children, will require treatment for acute malnutrition next year, according to the appeal.

The political crisis in Burundi will see the number of people in need of urgent support triple to about three million.

The U.N. last week doubled its appeal for northeast Nigeria to $1 billion, hoping to reach nearly 7 million people hit by the Islamist militant Boko Haram insurgency, including 75,000 children at risk of starving to death.

“Funding in support of the plans will translate into life-saving food assistance to people on the brink of starvation in the Lake Chad Basin and South Sudan,” said O’Brien.

Long-term conflicts resulted in higher costs partially because falling state revenues required aid agencies to offer healthcare, education and other services traditionally provided by governments, said Paul Knox Clarke, head of research and communications at ALNAP, a humanitarian action learning network.

“You have a situation where the humanitarian funding is basically this sort of welfare service provision,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Astrid Zweynert and Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Russia says to start talks with U.S. on Aleppo rebel withdrawal

smoke rises after air strike

By Ellen Francis, Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Maria Kiselyova

BEIRUT/MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Russian government said on Monday it would start talks with Washington on a rebel withdrawal from Aleppo this week as Russian-backed Syrian forces fought to seize more territory from rebels who are struggling to avoid a major defeat.

The latest army attack, which saw fierce clashes around the Old City, aims to cut off another area of rebel control in eastern Aleppo and tighten the noose on opposition-held districts where tens of thousands of people are trapped.

Advances in recent weeks have brought Damascus, backed militarily by Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, closer to recapturing Syria’s second largest city before the nearly six-year war and a prize long sought by President Bashar al-Assad.

The rebels are now reduced to an area just kilometers across.

While Assad’s allies have in the past year turned the battle in his favor, Western and regional states backing the rebels have been unwilling or unable to prevent a major defeat for groups who have fought for years to topple the Syrian leader.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said talks with the United States on the withdrawal of rebels would begin in Geneva on Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning. There was no immediate comment from Washington, which has backed some of the rebels.

“Those armed groups who refuse to leave eastern Aleppo will be considered to be terrorists,” Lavrov told a news conference. “We will treat them as such, as terrorists, as extremists and will support a Syrian army operation against those criminal squads.”

While the rebels have said they will not leave, one opposition official, who declined to be identified, conceded they may have no alternative for the sake of civilians who have been under siege for five months and faced relentless government bombardments.

“The people are paying a high price, with no state or organization intervening,” the official said, adding that this was his personal assessment based on reports from the city.

With narrow alleyways, big mansions and covered markets the ancient city of Aleppo became a UNESCO heritage site in 1986. Many historic buildings have been destroyed in the fighting.

BLACK SMOKE RISES NEAR CITADEL

Responding to Russia’s demand for their withdrawal, rebels told U.S. officials on Saturday they would not leave. Reiterating that position on Monday, rebel official Zakaria Malahifji said, “No person in his right mind, who has any sense of responsibility and patriotism, would leave his city.”

“The Russians are trying to do everything they can to make people leave. This is far from reality,” he said, speaking to Reuters from Turkey.

Insurgents, meanwhile, fought back ferociously inside Aleppo. Some of the fighting took place within a kilometre of the ancient citadel, a large fortress built on a mound, and around the historic Old City.

Heavy gunfire could be heard from the Old City and smoke from mortar shell blasts rose from the area, Reuters journalists in a government-held western district said.

Rebels appeared on the verge of being driven from the al-Shaar neighborhood after new advances by Syrian government forces on Sunday. But rebels said they had mounted a counter-attack on Monday, and were recovering ground in some areas.

Clashes raged in the Old City itself, which has long been split between government- and rebel-held areas, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.

A Syrian army officer told Reuters intense fighting was taking place around the Old City.

State television broadcast a report from inside a hospital complex seized from rebels on Sunday. The hospital is strategically important because it overlooks surrounding areas held by insurgents.

A government takeover of the eye hospital complex and areas stretching west from there to the citadel would cut the remaining rebel-held areas of eastern Aleppo in two, further isolating embattled rebel groups. Rebels said they were fighting back in that area too on Monday.

REBELS LAUNCH COUNTER-ATTACKS

“They (rebels) are trying to take back all the areas the regime took yesterday (including) the eye hospital, al-Myassar,” Malahifji said.

Moscow said a rebel attack on a mobile military hospital killed one Russian medic and wounded two others.

The United Nations says more than 200,000 people might still be trapped in rebel-held areas, affected by severe food and aid shortages. “We need to reach them,” U.N. aid chief Stephen O’Brien said in Geneva on Monday.

“People have been eking what they can, prices have skyrocketed so there is a real and severe shortage of foodstuffs.”

Russia is expected to veto a U.N. resolution on Monday which calls for a seven-day ceasefire, with Lavrov saying a truce was counter-productive because it would allow rebels to regroup.

State TV said rebel shelling killed seven people in government-held areas of Aleppo on Monday.

More than 300 people have been killed in government bombardments of rebel-held areas since mid-November, and 70 have died in rebel shellings, the Syrian Observatory says.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Firas Makdesi in Aleppo, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Jack Stubbs in Moscow; Writing by John Davison; Editing by Tom Perry and Peter Millership)

Yemen’s suspected cholera cases double to 4,000 plus

A girl lies on a bed at a cholera treatment center in Sanaa, Yemen,

GENEVA (Reuters) – Yemen is at risk of a significant cholera outbreak with the number of suspected cases doubling within 12 days to over 4,000, the World Health Organization said.

The outbreak in a country ravaged by a 20-month war that has killed thousands was declared by Yemen’s Health Ministry on Oct. 6. By Nov. 1 there were 2,070 suspected cases, rising to 4,119 by Sunday.

“The numbers of cholera cases in Yemen continue to increase, sparking concerns of a significant outbreak,” the WHO said in a report on Monday.

Cases confirmed as cholera by laboratory testing rose to 86 from 71 on Nov. 1. Eight people have died in the outbreak, as well as 56 from acute diarrhoea.

Yemen is already beset by humanitarian problems arising from the war between a Saudi Arabia-led coalition and the Iran-aligned Houthi group which controls much of northern Yemen, including the capital Sanaa.

The war has destroyed much of Yemen’s infrastructure, killed more than 10,000 people and displaced millions. The United Nations says only 45 percent of health facilities are functional and two-thirds of the population has no access to safe drinking water or sanitation.

The WHO said the largest cholera caseload was in the governorates of Taiz and of Aden, the site of the government’s temporary capital.

But deaths due to cholera have also been confirmed in Amran, Sanaa, Hajjah and Ibb, and there are 29 “hot” districts in the country, with 11 governorates affected so far, the report said.

Although most sufferers have no symptoms or mild symptoms that can be treated with oral rehydration solution, in more severe cases the disease can kill within hours if not treated with intravenous fluids and antibiotics.

The U.N. estimates the cholera caseload in Yemen could end up as high as 76,000 across 15 governorates.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; editing by John Stonestreet)

Disease stalks Yemen as hospitals, clinics devastated by war

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – More than half of war-battered Yemen’s hospitals and clinics are closed or only partially functioning, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday, warning a lack of adequate health services was increasing the risk of disease outbreaks.

Only 45 percent of 3,507 health facilities surveyed by WHO were fully functional and accessible, while more than 40 percent of districts faced a “critical” shortage of doctors, WHO said.

“These critical shortages in health services mean that more people are deprived of access to life-saving interventions,” WHO said in a statement.

“Absence of adequate communicable diseases management increases the risk of outbreaks such cholera, measles, malaria and other endemic diseases.”

The 18-month-old conflict between a Saudi Arabia-led coalition and the Iran-aligned Houthi group which controls much of northern Yemen has destroyed much of Yemen’s infrastructure, killed more than 10,000 people and displaced millions.

UNICEF says the humanitarian disaster in the country has left 7.4 million children in need of medical help and 370,000 at risk of severe acute malnutrition.

Yemen’s Health Ministry announced a cholera outbreak in early October in the capital Sanaa. By the end of the month, WHO said the number of suspected cholera cases had ballooned to more than 1,400.

In 42 percent of 276 districts surveyed by WHO there were only two doctors or less, while in nearly a fifth of districts there were none.

WHO said new mothers and their babies lacked essential ante-natal care and immunization services, while people suffering from acute or chronic conditions were forced to spend more on treatment or forgo treatment altogether.

(Reporting by Magdalena Mis; Editing by Ros Russell)

Yemen’s suspected cholera cases soar to 1,410 within weeks

A nurse checks a boy at a hospital intensive care unit in Sanaa, Yemen

GENEVA (Reuters) – The number of suspected cholera cases in Yemen has ballooned to 1,410 within three weeks of the outbreak being declared, the World Health Organization said on Friday, as 18 months of war has destroyed most health facilities and clean water supplies.

Yemen’s Health Ministry announced the outbreak on Oct. 6 in Sanaa city, and by Oct. 10 the WHO said there were 24 suspected cases. The following day, a WHO official in Yemen said there was “no spread of the disease”.

But on Friday, WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic told a Geneva news briefing that as of Thursday there were 1,410 suspected cholera cases in 10 out of Yemen’s 23 governorates – mostly in Taiz, Aden, Lahj, Hodeida and Sanaa.

The conflict between a Saudi Arabia-led coalition and the Iran-aligned Houthi group which controls much of northern Yemen, including Sanaa, has destroyed much of Yemen’s infrastructure, killed more than 10,000 people and displaced millions.

A girl holds her sister outside their family's hut at the Shawqaba camp

A girl holds her sister outside their family’s hut at the Shawqaba camp for internally displaced people who were forced to leave their villages by the war in Yemen’s northwestern province of Hajjah March 12, 2016. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

Cholera is only one risk in Yemen’s war but a rapid advance of the disease would add a new dimension to the humanitarian disaster which UNICEF says has left 7.4 million children in need of medical help and 370,000 at risk of severe acute malnutrition.

WHO said on Wednesday that only 47 of the suspected cases had tested positive for cholera and the outbreak had spread beyond the capital to nine other governorates.

Children under 10 accounted for half of the cases with six deaths from cholera and 36 associated deaths from acute watery diarrhea, the WHO said in the Oct. 26 report.

Although most suffers have no symptoms or mild symptoms that can be treated with oral rehydration solution, in more severe cases the disease can kill within hours if not treated with intravenous fluids and antibiotics.

(Reporting by Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Louise Ireland)

A picture and its story: Severe malnutrition in Yemen

Malnourished woman with her relative at Yemeni hospital

By Abduljabbar Zeyad

HODAIDA, Yemen (Reuters) – The emaciated frame of 18-year-old Saida Ahmad Baghili lies on a hospital bed in the red sea port city of Hodaida, her suffering stark evidence of the malnutrition spread by Yemen’s 19-month civil war.

Baghili arrived at the Al Thawra hospital on Saturday. She is bed-ridden and unable to eat, surviving on a diet of juice, milk and tea, medical staff and a relative said.

“The problem is malnutrition due to (her) financial situation and the current (war) situation at this time,” Asma Al Bhaiji, a nurse at the hospital, told Reuters on Tuesday.

The 18-year-old is one of more than 14 million people, over half of Yemen’s population, who are short of food, with much of the country on the brink of famine, according to the United Nations.

Her picture is a reminder of the humanitarian crisis in the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country where at least 10,000 people have been killed in fighting between Saudi-led Arab coalition and the Iran-allied Houthi movement.

Baghili is from the small village of Shajn, about 100 km (60 miles) southwest of the city of Hodaida, and used to work with sheep before developing signs of malnutrition five years ago, according to her aunt, Saida Ali Baghili.

“She was fine. She was in good health. There was nothing wrong with her. And then she got sick,” Ali Baghili told Reuters.

“She has been sick for five years. She can’t eat. She says her throat hurts.”

After the war began, Baghili’s condition deteriorated with her family lacking the money for treatment.

She lost more weight and in the last two months developed diarrhoea.

“Her father couldn’t (afford to) send her anywhere (for treatment) but some charitable people helped out,” Ali Baghili said, without elaborating who the donors were.

(Writing by Patrick Johnston in LONDON Editing by Alison Williams)

Saudi Arabia says prepared for ceasefire in Yemen if Houthis agree

A hole is seen during a visit by human rights activists to a community hall that was struck by an airstrike during a funeral on October 8, in Sanaa, Yemen,

By William James

LONDON (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia is prepared to agree to a ceasefire in Yemen if the Iran-allied Houthis agree, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said on Monday, adding that he was skeptical about efforts for peace after previous ceasefire attempts had failed.

The Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen has faced heavy criticism since an air strike this month on a funeral gathering in the Yemeni capital Sanaa that killed 140 people according to a United Nations’ estimate and 82 according to the Houthis.

The United States and Britain, which have both supported the Saudi-led campaign, called on Sunday for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire between Houthis and the Saudi-backed, internationally recognized government.

“We would like to see a ceasefire yesterday,” Jubeir told reporters in London. “Everybody wants a ceasefire in Yemen, nobody more so than the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the coalition members.”

He accused the Houthis of reneging on previous deals.

“So yes, we come at this with a lot of cynicism. But we are prepared, the Yemeni government is prepared, to agree to a cessation of hostilities if the Houthis agree to it. The coalition countries will respect the desire of the Yemeni government,” Jubeir said.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, together with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, met Jubeir and officials from the United Arab Emirates on Sunday and said the conflict in Yemen was causing increasing international concern.

“The fatalities that we’re seeing there are unacceptable,” Johnson said. Britain’s Foreign Office said that Saudi Arabia’s approach to humanitarian law will be a factor in London’s continual assessment of arms sales to the kingdom, and it would look into the air strike on the funeral as part of that process.

HOUTHIS “LOSING GROUND”

Since March 2015 Saudi Arabia and several Gulf Arab allies have carried out air strikes in support of the government of Abd Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi against Houthi fighters, who are backed by troops loyal to ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Gulf states have also deployed troops in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia and Hadi’s government accuse Shi’ite Iran of supplying weapons to the Houthis to help spread Tehran’s influence at the expense of Riyadh, its main regional rival. Iran denies the charge.

The Houthis still control Sanaa and large areas of northern and western Yemen, but Jubeir said it was a matter of time before they were defeated.

“The momentum is going against them in Yemen. They’re losing more territory, more people are mobilized against them. They are not paying their bills, businesses are not extending credit to them,” Jubeir said.

Jubeir said the Sunni Kingdom was being very careful to abide by humanitarian law in the Yemen conflict. He said that those responsible for the funeral bombing would be punished and victims would be compensated.

Asked about an offensive on Islamic State militants in the Iraqi city of Mosul, Jubeir said Islamic State would lose the war but he added that he was worried that Shi’ite militias would enter Mosul and “engage in bloodbaths”.

“This would have tremendously negative consequences and would further inflame the sectarian tensions in Iraq. That would be the greatest danger we see.”

(Reporting by William James, writing by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Stephen Addison and Dominic Evans)