Senators see votes next week to send message to Saudi over Khashoggi death

FILE PHOTO: Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi speaks at an event hosted by Middle East Monitor in London, Britain, Sept. 29, 2018. Middle East Monitor/Handout via REUTERS

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. senators said on Thursday they expect to vote next week on efforts to make clear to Saudi Arabia there is strong concern in Washington about the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Turkey, despite President Donald Trump’s calls for continued close ties to Riyadh.

Some of Trump’s fellow Republicans have joined Democrats in blaming Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for Khashoggi’s death and backing legislation that could respond by, among other things, ending U.S. support for Saudi-led war effort in Yemen and suspending weapons sales to the kingdom.

A group of Republican and Democratic senators met on Thursday morning to discuss how to move ahead, saying afterward they were working to come up with a compromise that could eventually become law.

Republican Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he hoped to hold a hearing early next week on legislation that included a broad range of efforts to clamp down on Riyadh, including new sanctions and an end to military sales.

He also said he expected a vote in the Senate next week on a war powers resolution to stop U.S. support for the war in Yemen, which has produced one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.

Last week, 14 Republicans, who hold a slim majority in the Senate and rarely break from the president, defied Trump’s wishes and voted with Democrats in favor of moving ahead with the war powers resolution.

“We had a very good meeting,” Corker told reporters after the session, which was also attended by Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and Todd Young and Democrats Bob Menendez and Chris Murphy.

Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters after the meeting that the senators were working on a compromise.

Graham, a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia who is close to Trump, introduced a bipartisan Senate resolution on Thursday intended to hold the Saudi crown prince “accountable” for contributing to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, a blockade of Qatar, the jailing of dissidents and Khashoggi’s death.

Khashoggi was a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Yemen sterilizes Sanaa water supplies as cholera outbreak picks up again

Girls wait next to a charity tap where people collect drinking water amid fears of a new cholera outbreak in Sanaa, Yemen November 5, 2018. Picture taken November 5, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

SANAA (Reuters) – Authorities in the Houthi-held Yemeni capital Sanaa are sterilizing water supplies at wells, distribution networks and houses to help stem the world’s worst outbreak of cholera.

Nearly four years of war between a Saudi-led coalition and the Iranian-aligned Houthi group have crippled healthcare and sanitation systems in Yemen, where some 1.2 million suspected cholera cases have been reported since 2017, with 2,515 deaths.

The World Health Organization (WHO) warned in October that the outbreak is accelerating again with roughly 10,000 suspected cases now reported per week, double the average rate for the first eight months of 2018.

Most cases have been reported in areas held by the Houthi movement, which controls most population centers after ousting the internationally recognized government from Sanaa in 2014.

“We receive information of reported cases of cholera from the Ministry of Health, then the team sterilizes the house and 20 houses around it,” Nabeel Abdullah al-Wazeer, the Houthis’ minister of water, told Reuters in Sanaa.

“We worked from house to house and on sterilizing water wells. We also worked on bus-mounted tanks, which transport water in the private sector to the citizens, as well as sterilizing local institutions which distribute water.”

Adel Moawada, director general of technical affairs at Sanaa’s main water sanitation plant, said there are currently 20 automated chlorination units installed in wells directly linked to the capital’s water distribution network.

Cholera, which is spread by consuming contaminated food or water, is a diarrheal disease and can kill within hours. While previous outbreaks may have helped build immunity in the population, other diseases and widespread malnutrition can weaken resilience.

The United Nations says about 14 million people, or half of Yemen’s population, could soon face famine. Some 1.8 million children are malnourished, according to UNICEF.

Children account for 30 percent of cholera infections.

Pediatrician Mohammed Abdulmughni administers intravenous fluids to children in WHO tents in Sanaa. Their beds rest on gravel and flies circle their faces.

“With winter’s arrival we expected the numbers would decrease, yet the cases have been coming in at the same pace,” he said. “We expected positive (diagnoses) cases to decrease but the cases remain high.”

If caught early, acute diarrhea can be treated with oral hydration salts, but more severe cases require intravenous fluids and antibiotics.

More than 250,000 cases of cholera have been recorded in Yemen since the beginning of 2018, with 358 associated deaths, UNICEF representative Meritxell Relano told Reuters.

“We have prevented an outbreak at the scale of 2017,” Relano said. “But the risk is still there.”

(Reporting by Reuters team in Yemen, additional reporting by Julie Carriat in Paris; Writing by Tuqa Khalid; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Yemen talks set to start in Sweden after wounded Houthis evacuated

A wounded Houthi fighter, on a wheelchair, holds his passport at Sanaa airport during his evacuation from Yemen, December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

By Mohamed Ghobari and Aziz El Yaakoubi

ADEN/DUBAI (Reuters) – Yemeni Houthi officials are expected to travel to Sweden shortly for talks as early as Wednesday to end the nearly four-year-old war after the Saudi-led coalition allowed the evacuation of some of their wounded for treatment.

Prospects for convening talks have risen as Western allies press Saudi Arabia, leader of the Sunni Muslim alliance battling the Iranian-aligned Houthis, over a war that has killed more than 10,000 people and pushed Yemen to the brink of famine.

U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths arrived in the Houthi-held capital Sanaa on Monday to escort the Houthi delegation, a U.N. source told Reuters. The Saudi-backed government has said it would follow the Houthis to the talks, the first since 2016.

The peace talks may start on Wednesday, two sources familiar with the matter said. Griffiths shuttled between the parties to salvage a previous round that collapsed in September after the Houthis failed to show up.

Western powers, which provide arms and intelligence to the coalition, may now have greater leverage to demand action on Yemen after outrage over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul led to increased scrutiny of the kingdom’s activities in the region.

The U.S. Senate is due to consider this week a resolution to end support for the conflict, seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and its arch-foe in the Middle East, Iran.

A Houthi official told Reuters that their delegation could travel on Monday night or Tuesday morning. In addition to the evacuation of their wounded, the group had asked to travel on a plane not inspected by the Saudi-led coalition.

A Reuters photographer saw the group of 50 wounded fighters entered Sanaa airport early on Monday as the commercial plane hired by the United Nations to take them to Oman for treatment arrived. The aircraft departed later on Monday.

A Houthi official said the group has agreed with Griffiths that 50 companions would also go with the fighters.

The coalition said in a statement it had agreed on the evacuation for “for humanitarian considerations and as part of confidence-building measures” ahead of the talks, which are also due to focus on a transitional governing body.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry said it backed the talks and was ready to help find a political solution, Iranian state TV reported on Monday.

A wounded Houthi fighter walks at Sanaa airport during his evacuation from Yemen December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

A wounded Houthi fighter walks at Sanaa airport during his evacuation from Yemen December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

HODEIDAH CHALLENGE

Analysts said both parties showing up for the talks would be an achievement in itself, even if there are no concrete outcomes as Griffiths tries to overcome deep mistrust on all sides.

“Neither side wishes to be blamed for the dire consequences of the looming famine, which is starting to become a reality,” said Elisabeth Kendall, a senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Oxford University.

“But it remains to be seen whether the political will is really there to make the necessary concessions for peace.”

Some 8.4 million Yemenis are facing starvation, although the United Nations has warned that will probably rise to 14 million. Three-quarters of impoverished Yemen’s population, or 22 million people, require aid.

The Arab alliance intervened in the war in 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi but has bogged down in a military stalemate, despite superior air power, since seizing the southern port of Aden that year.

The Houthis, who are more adept at guerrilla warfare, hold most population centers including Sanaa and the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions that is now the focus of the war.

Griffiths hopes to reach a deal on reopening Sanaa airport and securing a prisoner swap and a ceasefire in Hodeidah as a foundation for a wider ceasefire, which would include a halt to coalition air strikes that have killed thousands of civilians as well as Houthi missile attacks on Saudi cities.

(Additional reporting by Hesham Hajali in CAIRO and Mohammed Ghobari in Aden, Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Toby Chopra; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Downgrading U.S.-Saudi ties would be ‘grave mistake’: Pompeo

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pauses during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, U.S., November 20, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

By Doina Chiacu and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday that downgrading U.S. ties with Saudi Arabia over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi would be a mistake for national security and would not push Saudis in a better direction at home.

After repeated calls from members of Congress for a strong U.S. response, Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis were briefing the U.S. Senate behind closed doors about Saudi Arabia and the Oct. 2 murder of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, as well as the civil war in Yemen.

In a blog post, Pompeo said: “The October murder of Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey has heightened the Capitol Hill caterwauling and media pile-on. But degrading U.S.-Saudi ties would be a grave mistake for the national security of the U.S. and its allies,” Pompeo wrote.

In his remarks for the briefing, which were released as it got underway, Mattis said that pulling back U.S. military support in Yemen and stopping weapons sales to important partners would be misguided.

“Our security interests cannot be dismissed, even as we seek accountability for what President (Donald) Trump described as the “unacceptable and horrible crime” of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, a crime which “our country does not condone,” Mattis said in his prepared remarks.

Pompeo made the case that the Saudis are too important an ally to lose, citing the country’s help to contain Iran in the region, secure democracy in Iraq and fight the Islamic State and other militant groups.

“The kingdom is a powerful force for stability in the Middle East,” he wrote. “Saudi Arabia, like the U.S. – and unlike these critics – recognizes the immense threat the Islamic Republic of Iran poses to the world.”

Pompeo also said the United States would provide an additional $131 million for food aid in Yemen.

The nearly four-year-long war in Yemen, which has killed more than 10,000 people and triggered the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis, is seen as a proxy war between Saudia Arabia and Iran.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Bill Berkrot)

More than 80,000 Yemeni children may have died from hunger: humanitarian body

FILE PHOTO: A malnourished boy lies on a weighing scale at the malnutrition ward of al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

By Aziz El Yaakoubi and Mohammed Ghobari

DUBAI/ADEN (Reuters) – An estimated 85,000 children under five may have died from extreme hunger in Yemen since a Saudi-led coalition intervened in the civil war in 2015, a humanitarian body said on Wednesday, as the U.N. special envoy arrived in Yemen to pursue peace talks.

Western countries are pressing for a ceasefire and renewed peace efforts to end the disastrous conflict, which has unleashed the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis with 8.4 million people believed to be on the verge of starvation.

Save the Children said that according to a conservative estimate based on United Nations data, approximately 84,700 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition may have died between April 2015 and October 2018 in the impoverished country, where a Western-backed Arab alliance is battling the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement that holds the capital Sanaa.

“We are horrified that some 85,000 children in Yemen may have died because of the consequences of extreme hunger since the war began. For every child killed by bombs and bullets, dozens are dying from hunger and disease and it’s entirely preventable,” it said in a statement.

The last available figure from the United Nations for the death toll from the conflict, seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, was in 2016 and stood at more than 10,000.

The world body has not provided figures for the death toll from malnutrition but warned last month that half the population, or some 14 million people, could soon be on the brink of famine and completely relying on humanitarian aid.

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a database that tracks violence in Yemen, says around 57,000 people have been reported killed since the beginning of 2016.

The Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government that was ousted from Sanaa in 2014 by the Houthis, who control the most populated areas of the Arabian Peninsula country.

But since seizing the southern port city of Aden in 2015, the coalition has faced a military stalemate and has been focusing on wresting control of the main port city of Hodeidah to weaken the Houthis by cutting off their main supply line.

NO CEASEFIRE YET

The coalition last week ordered a halt to military operations in Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis. A few days later the Houthis announced a halt to missile and drone attacks on coalition leaders Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates along with their Yemeni allies.

However, Hodeidah has witnessed intense fighting in the past two days, mostly taking place at night, as each side tried to reinforce its positions during the de-escalation in hostilities.

“Loud bangs, shelling and gunfire could be heard all over the city until dawn,” a Hodeidah resident said on Wednesday.

A pro-coalition Yemeni military source told Reuters on Monday that a ceasefire in Hodeidah would start only after the U.N. Security Council passes a British-drafted resolution on Yemen.

Aid groups have warned against an all-out assault on the city, an entry point for more than 80 percent of Yemen’s food imports and humanitarian aid.

U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths arrived in Sanaa on Wednesday to meet with Houthi leaders to discuss convening peace talks in Sweden next month to agree on a framework for peace under a transitional government.

The Houthis failed to show up to peace talks in September. Kuwait has offered to provide planes for the parties to ensure the participation of both sides in Stockholm.

Griffiths faces a daunting challenge to overcome deep mistrust between all sides, including among allies, which makes any peace agreement fragile.

The draft resolution, seen by Reuters, calls for a halt to fighting in Hodeidah, a stop to attacks on populated areas across Yemen and an end to attacks on countries in the region.

It also calls for an unhindered flow of commercial and humanitarian goods across the impoverished country, including a large, fast injection of foreign currency into the economy through the Central Bank of Yemen and more aid funding.

(Writing By Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Yemeni Houthis halt missile attacks on Saudi coalition, raising peace prospects

FILE PHOTO: A Houthi militant sits guard on the roof of a building overlooking fellow Houthis rallying to denounce the rapid devaluation of the Yemeni Rial in Sanaa, Yemen October 5, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah/File Photo

By Aziz El Yaakoubi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Houthi rebels in Yemen said on Monday they were halting drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and their Yemeni allies, responding to a demand from the United Nations.

The Iranian-aligned group, which has been battling the Saudi-backed government for nearly four years, also said it was ready for a broader ceasefire if the Saudi-led coalition “wants peace”.

The Houthis’ decision to halt missile attacks could be a turning point in peace efforts as it ends a direct threat to Saudi Arabia. It is by far the biggest concession from the movement since it left the southern port city of Aden in 2015.

International pressure has mounted on Yemen’s warring parties to end the war that has killed more than 10,000 people and pushed the country to the verge of starvation.

The move from the Houthi group came after the coalition ordered a halt in its offensive against Yemen’s main port city Hodeidah, which has become the focus of the war.

“We announce our initiative…to halt missile and drone strikes on the countries of aggression,” Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, the head of the Houthis’ Supreme Revolutionary Committee, said in a statement.

The decision was based on discussions with U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths to show “good faith” and support peace efforts, he said.

Griffiths welcomed the Houthi announcement and called on all parties continue to show restraint “to create a conducive environment for convening the consultations”.

The envoy is trying to salvage peace talks after a round in September collapsed when the Houthis did not show up. He hopes to convene talks before the end of the year in Sweden to agree on a framework for peace under a transitional government.

Yemen’s parties have given “firm assurances” they are committed to attending peace talks, Griffiths told the U.N. Security Council on Friday, with Britain asking the council to back a humanitarian truce in Yemen on Monday.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on Monday reiterated the kingdom’s support for U.N. efforts to end the war. The Riyadh-backed government also announced its willingness to take part in the next round of consultations.

TIRED OF WAR

Yemenis cautiously welcomed the announcement on Monday.

“We pray that this will be the real beginning of peace in Yemen, we are all tired of this war,” said Mona Ibrahim, a teacher in the capital Sanaa, which has been under Houthi control since September 2014.

“We just want to live like other humans,” Mohammed al-Ahdal, a resident of Hodeidah said.

The Houthi defense ministry said it would respond to any hostilities from the coalition.

Graham Griffiths, a senior analyst at Control Risks Middle East, said the announcement was potentially important as it comes in response to the coalition’s pausing of operations around Hodeidah.

“Efforts to resume the peace process remain fragile … given the mutual distrust between the warring parties. Nevertheless, given the renewed pressure from the international community, there is a real chance to begin to move the conflict toward a durable de-escalation,” he said.

Houthi-run Al Masirah TV reported on Monday that Houthi forces fired a ballistic missile on Saudi-backed forces in the desert of Midi, bordering Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis say their missile attacks on Saudi Arabia are in retaliation for air raids on Yemen by the Western-backed coalition, which entered Yemen’s war in 2015 to try to restore the Saudi-backed government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The coalition has carried out thousands of air strikes in the impoverished country that have hit schools, markets and hospitals, killing hundreds of people – though it says it does not target civilians.

Western allies including the United States have called for a ceasefire ahead of the renewed U.N. efforts.

Western countries have provided arms and intelligence to the Arab states in the alliance, but have shown increasing reservations about the conflict since the murder of U.S.-based Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last month.

(Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Aden, Hesham Hajali in Cairo and Asma Alsharif in Dubai; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

A ‘never-ending nightmare’ for Yemenis one year since blockade

A woman holds a malnourished boy in a malnutrition treatment centre at the al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen October 6, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC17865BEC40

By Heba Kanso

BEIRUT (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – One year after a Saudi coalition imposed a blockade on Yemeni ports temporarily halting life-saving supplies, Yemenis are still living a “never-ending nightmare,” low on food and fuel, a senior aid official said on Tuesday.

Yemen, one of the poorest Arab countries, is locked in a nearly four-year-old war that pits Iran-aligned Houthi rebels against the government backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the West.

For several weeks at the end of 2017, the Saudi coalition imposed a blockade on Yemeni ports which it said was to prevent Houthis from importing weapons. This had a severe impact on Yemen, which traditionally imports 90 percent of its food.

Jan Egeland, a former U.N. aid chief who now heads the Norwegian Refugee Council said since the blockade, food and fuel imports remain low and prices have soared, leaving millions on the brink of starvation as violence continues.

“The past 12 months have been a never-ending nightmare for Yemeni civilians,” he said in a statement.

Here are some facts about what has been happening inside the war-torn country:

-The brutal war has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations, with 22 million Yemenis dependent on aid out of a population of around 25 million.

-The U.N. aid coordinator warned that a further 10 million Yemenis could face starvation by the end of the year. More than 8 million are already severely short of food.

-Aid group Save the Children said a million more children in Yemen risked falling into famine, taking the total number to 5.2 million.

-Fighting flared this week in Yemen’s main Hodeidah port, where most food imports and relief supplies enter, leaving thousands trapped on the southern outskirts of the Red Sea port, according to the U.N.

-Western countries, like the United States and Britain, have called for a ceasefire to support efforts to end a war that has killed more than 10,000 people.

-After international pressure the Saudi-led coalition lifted the blockade but tightened ship inspections, slowing down imports.

-Soaring prices have put some basic commodities out of reach for many Yemenis and the central bank has struggled to pay public-sector salaries on which many depend as foreign exchange reserves dwindle.

Sources: Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Save the Children, U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Reuters

(Reporting by Heba Kanso @hebakanso; Editing by Jason Fields. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Yemeni children die as warring sides block aid deliveries: UNICEF

A malnourished boy lies on a bed at a malnutrition treatment center in Sanaa, Yemen October 7, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Yemeni children are dying from starvation and disease as trucks with life-saving supplies are blocked in port, leaving medical staff and desperate mothers imploring aid workers to do more, a senior U.N. official said.

Geert Cappelaere, Middle East director for the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), described “heart-breaking” scenes of emaciated children in hospitals in the main port city of Hodeidah and the capital Sanaa, both held by Houthi insurgents.

“We have evidence that today in Yemen every 10 minutes a child under the age of 5 is dying from preventable diseases and severe acute malnutrition,” he told Reuters from Hodeidah.

The United Nations says about 14 million people, or half Yemen’s population, could soon be on the brink of famine in a man-made disaster.

Already 1.8 million Yemeni children are malnourished, more than 400,000 of them suffering from severe acute malnutrition, a life-threatening condition that leaves them skeletal with muscle wasting, Cappelaere said.

“But there is more. Many children are dying from vaccine-preventable diseases. Today not more than 40 percent of the children throughout Yemen are being vaccinated,” he said.

Measles, cholera and diphtheria can be deadly for children, especially those under five, and are exacerbated by malnutrition.

“Because of this brutal war, because of obstacles, obstructions being made, it is unfortunately not possible do much more,” Cappelaere said.

“We may not yet be at the level of a famine but we should not wait until we have declared a famine to step up and to pressure the parties to the conflict to stop this senseless war,” he said.

U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths aims to convene peace talks this month to seek a ceasefire in the three-and-half year war, which pits the Yemeni government, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, and the Iran-allied Houthi insurgents.

As Cappelaere spoke, coaltion forces were massing for an assault on Hodeidah.

“HEART-BREAKING”

Seven trucks carrying life-saving medical equipment and medicines had been blocked at Hodeidah port for two weeks awaiting clearance after being off-loaded, Cappelaere said.

“It was heart-breaking that an hour before I was sitting at al-Thwara hospital, and I have all the doctors, all the medical staff pleading with me to get more medical supplies, to get more medicines,” he said.

A UNICEF spokeswoman said the trucks had been cleared by Houthi authorities on Friday and supplies would be distributed.

Several extremely malnourished children were in the hospital ward, Cappelaere said.

“All the mothers were telling me that they are simply missing that small amount of money to transport their children from their communities to the hospital,” he said.

Hodeidah is a lifeline for food and other goods for much of the country.

But, said Cappelaere, “There was hardly any activity in the port. Only one ship was berthed, that was it.

“Today it looks more like a graveyard than anything else.”

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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)

Young survivors of Yemen school bus air strike return to class

Muhammad al-Shadheli, 9, who survived an August 2018 Saudi-led air strike on a school bus, sits on a wheelchair during the morning drill at his school in Saada province, Yemen October 6, 2018. REUTERS/Naif Rahma

SAADA, Yemen (Reuters) – In a small school in Yemen’s Saada province, the absence of dozens of their classmates killed in an air strike on a bus weighed heavily on the young survivors as they returned to classes.

Ahmad Ali Hanash, 14, struggled to hold back tears as he recalled the friends he lost in the attack by a Saudi-led military alliance on a market in Saada in northern Yemen in August.

“Their blood will not be in vain, we will avenge them by getting an education, we will avenge them by learning,” Hanash, who was on the bus, told Reuters. “I thank God for surviving the attack, the ugly crime.”

As the survivors resumed their lives, joining morning exercise drills in the sand yard of the two-storey Al Falah primary school, or attending classes in wheelchairs alongside peers seated at wooden desks, other students said they feared more attacks in the war-torn country.

“We are sad after we lost our dearest schoolmates, and we are worried that the enemy will strike the school,” said 15-year-old Sadiq Amin Jaafar. “But we will continue our education.”

Saudi Arabia, which leads a coalition of Arab states fighting against the Iran-aligned Houthi movement that controls north Yemen, said last month that the coalition accepted that the attack had killed dozens of people, including children on the bus, and that it was unjustified.

The kingdom and its ally the United Arab Emirates receive Western political support and buy billions of dollars a year in arms from the United States and European powers including Britain and France.

The alliance has launched thousands of air strikes in a campaign to restore the internationally recognized government, killing hundreds of civilians at hospitals, schools, markets and weddings.

International pressure has mounted on the kingdom to seek a political deal with the Houthi group in a 3-1/2 year war that has killed more than 10,000 people and pushed the already impoverished country to the brink of famine.

The alliance says it does not intentionally target civilians. The Houthis have also been criticized by rights groups.

Students attend the morning drills at their school which lost pupils in an August 2018 Saudi-led air strike on a school bus in Saada province, Yemen October 6, 2018. REUTERS/Naif Rahma

Students attend the morning drills at their school which lost pupils in an August 2018 Saudi-led air strike on a school bus in Saada province, Yemen October 6, 2018. REUTERS/Naif Rahma

Nearly half a million children in Yemen have dropped out of school since 2015, bringing the total number of out-of-school children to 2 million, according to a UNICEF report in March.

But teacher Abdul Wahab Salah said that fear of coalition attacks on Saada, a Houthi stronghold, would not deter the school or students.

“It pains us that we lost so many of our students. They were exceptional and they were committed,” he said.

“We also are worried (about attacks), but we will continue to build future generations.”

(Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Hugh Lawson)