Unicef says child death toll 2,200 in Yemen fighting

‘Relentless conflict in Yemen has pushed a country on the brink deep into the abyss’

UN special envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths (centre): called this week’s talks with rebel leader Abdel Malik al-Houthi “positive and constructive”. Photograph: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty

UN special envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths (centre): called this week’s talks with rebel leader Abdel Malik al-Houthi “positive and constructive”. Photograph: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty

 

The UN children’s agency has castigated Yemen’s warring parties for killing, wounding and starving children, who make up half that country’s population of 22 million.

More than 2,000 children have been forced to fight while thousands are dying of preventable diseases and suffering from malnutrition. Nearly 19 million Yemenis require humanitarian aid; eight million face the threat of famine.

Following a visit to Yemen, Unicef executive director Henrietta Fore stated, “The relentless conflict in Yemen has pushed a country already on the brink deep into the abyss.”

She said 2,200 children had been killed and 3,400 injured, adding: “These are only numbers we have been able to verify. The actual figures could be even higher. There is no justification for this carnage.”

The UN figure for fatalities has remained at 10,000 for many months and is contested by humanitarian agencies. Last November, Save the Children reported 130 children were dying every day and more than 50,000 were believed to have succumbed to disease in 2017.

Such reports and emotional appeals by the international community to halt the war have not, so far, swayed the Saudi-United Arab Emirates (UAE) coalition, which launched a military campaign in March 2015 against Houthi tribal rebels who had seized most of the country during 2014.

Nevertheless, the Emiratis and Saudis have paused an offensive to wrest Hodeidah port and city from the Houthis, who are accused of being allied to Shia Iran, seen by the two Sunni powers as their chief rival for regional influence.

Stalled offensive

There are three reasons the offensive has been put on hold. The UAE, which is leading the operation, understands it is bad public relations to bludgeon Hodeidah when UN mediator Martin Griffiths is making the rounds with a proposal to hand over to UN control the port, through which 70 per cent of imports reach the country.

While the sides could agree on this, the Houthis seek to retain control of the city while the Saudis and Emiratis demand full withdrawal.

Griffiths, who is to brief the UN Security Council on Thursday, called this week’s talks with rebel leader Abdel Malik al-Houthi “positive and constructive”. Griffiths has yet to meet Saudi-backed Yemeni president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Unicef’s tough language increases pressure on the combatants to give negotiations a chance. The Houthis have been accused of recruiting 67 per cent of child soldiers. The UAE has been cited for human rights abuses in its prisons in Yemen. The Saudis have been charged with indiscriminate bombing of civilians, schools, and hospitals. Reducing Hodeidah, a city of 600,000 to rubble, would be a public relations disaster.

Ground forces

The UAE, which has deployed ground forces, has a compelling military reason to avoid an all-out battle in the streets of Hodeidah. The Houthis, who are well-prepared to defend the city, have vowed to fight to the finish. Urban warfare could cost many casualties among attacking forces, both Emirati soldiers and Yemeni recruits.

The Yemen war is highly unpopular in the UAE, where the army has suffered more than 100 fatalities. Emiratis resent the war’s cost and regard it bad for business and tourism.

Finally, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are not only coalition partners but also competitors for dominance in post-war Yemen. The Saudis are not keen for UAE forces to take control of Hodeidah, Yemen’s main port city. Hodeidah would be a major asset in the UAE’s quest for maritime reach.

The allies are also at cross-purposes: the Saudis want to restore the recognised government of all Yemen headed by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, while the UAE sponsors south Yemeni separatists determined to redivide the country, unified in 1990.