Yemen air offensive: Russia appeals for ‘humanitarian pause’

ADEN / UNITED NATIONS: Russia and the Red Cross have appealed for a military pause in Yemen to allow urgent humanitarian aid deliveries and evacuation of civilians after 10 days of Saudi-led air strikes and fighting in which hundreds of people have died.

Amid growing alarm over the rising civilian death toll, Russia called an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on Saturday and presented a draft resolution pressing for suspensions of the air strikes.

The one-page text “demands to establish regular and obligatory humanitarian pauses in the air strikes by the coalition to allow all concerned states and international organisations to evacuate their citizens and personnel from Yemen.” It expresses ‘grave alarm’ at the worsening humanitarian situation and demands “rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access” to ensure that aid reaches people in need.

The draft did not specify the duration of the pause and made no reference to previous calls by the 15-member council for the Houthis to pull back and return to political talks.

Initial response to the Russian initiative was cool. Jordan’s Ambassador Dina Kawar, whose country chairs the council, said council members need ‘time to reflect’ on the text. Saudi Ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi declined to say whether his country would agree to a pause, telling the media that while he shared Russia’s concern for the humanitarian situation, the ‘mechanism’ for ensuring assistance would have to be discussed.

Russian Deputy Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov told the media that the pause would ensure that “when we evacuate people, to make sure it’s secure and safe.” He rejected claims that Russia was supplying weapons to the Houthis, which are backed by Iran, one of Moscow’s friends in the region.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) too on Saturday called for an immediate pause in hostilities to deliver life-saving medical aid, saying three of its shipments remained blocked. “All air, land and sea routes must be opened without delay for at least 24 hours to enable help to reach people cut off after more than a week of intense air strikes and fierce ground fighting nationwide,” the ICRC said in a statement.

Some 591 people, including at least 62 children, have been killed and nearly 1,700 injured in two weeks of fighting in Yemen, according to UN officials.

At least 185 dead and 1,282 wounded have been counted in hospitals in Aden alone since March 26, according to the city’s health department director, Al-Kheder Lassouar. The toll does not include casualties among the rebels and their allies, who do not take their people to public hospitals, or victims of air raids, he said. “Medicine stocks are exhausted and hospitals can no longer cope with the increasing number of victims,” Lassouar added.

ICRC said hospitals in Aden were overwhelmed by the casualties and fighting was making it nearly impossible for aid workers to move around. Two brothers working for the Yemen Red Crescent Society were shot dead on Friday in the city while evacuating the wounded, it said.

“In Yemen we are seeing Red Crescent volunteers being deliberately killed as they strive to save others,” said Robert Mardini of the ICRC. “This is the third senseless death in a single week. This is a very worrying trend and a tragic loss.”

There was no sign of a halt in the fighting. Aden residents said ships from the Saudi-led coalition bombarded Houthi forces who have taken over districts close to the centre of the city despite Riyadh’s military campaign in support of their foe, President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi.

Hadi loyalists managed to push the Houthis and their allies from central Aden’s Crater district on Friday, a rare victory after more than a week of gains by the Houthis.

Jets from the Saudi-led coalition parachuted weapons into Aden for a second day to bolster fighters loyal to Hadi.

A military spokesman for the Saudi coalition said it was providing substantial logistical support for Hadi’s fighters. He declined to confirm or deny reports that Saudi special forces were operating in Aden.

A Saudi adviser, however, told AFP on condition of anonymity that Saudi special forces are involved in the operation against Houthis in Yemen.

Meanwhile, Aden residents said life was becoming unbearable and parts of the city have been without water or electricity for two days.

“How long can people live without water or electricity?” said Mohammad Fara’a. Another Crater resident, Hassan Abdallah, said people were using a long-disused well at one of the mosques to get water.

Coalition spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri, asked about the calls for a humanitarian pause, said aid will be allowed into Yemen when conditions are right.

“The humanitarian operation is part of our job, part of our responsibility… aid will come when we are able to set the conditions (so) that this aid will benefit the population,” he said, adding that the coalition requires that aid delivery does not interfere with the military operation, that aid workers are not put at risk, and that supplies do not fall into the wrong hands. “We don’t want to supply the militias.”

Asseri said the military was ready for any instructions from its political leadership and suggested aid agencies and governments coordinate aid shipments with officials in Riyadh.