U.N. calls for Yemen food imports to resume as half of population go hungry

By Kieran Guilbert LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Escalating violence in Yemen has pushed half of the population into hunger and the situation is likely to deteriorate further, the United Nations said as it called for a blockade on imports of fuel, food and medicine to be lifted immediately. Since fighting intensified at the end of March, the number of people going hungry has risen by 17 percent to 13 million people, including six million at risk of starvation, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP). Nineteen out of the 22 governorates in the Arabian peninsula's poorest country are affected by the food crisis, the U.N. agencies said. "Conflict and the lack of food and fuel in the markets are pushing Yemen toward a complete breakdown in food security and health ... it is sliding into catastrophe," the FAO and WFP said in a joint statement on Wednesday. "Yemen desperately needs a pause in fighting, increased access and funding for humanitarian aid, and an immediate large-scale resumption of commercial imports." A Saudi-led alliance has been carrying out air raids in Yemen for almost three months to try to restore exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and repel Houthi rebels, whom they regard as proxies for their regional arch rival Iran. Yemen previously imported the majority of its fuel and 90 percent of its food to feed its population of 26 million, most of it by sea, but the alliance has maintained a blockade on imports in a bid to cut off arms supplies to rebel forces. The prices of wheat flour, sugar and cooking gas have all rocketed since the end of March, rising by up to 300 percent, while the price of fuel has soared by nearly 1,400 percent. Fuel is completely unavailable in seven governorates, the U.N. agencies said. "Households are under increasing pressure to put meals on the table, particularly for the one million internally displaced Yemenis and the 200,000 people hosting some of them in their homes around the country," the U.N. bodies said. Aid agencies are working to deliver emergency food supplies, as well as cash transfers, seeds and livestock vaccinations, but have been hindered by the ongoing conflict, issues concerning access and a lack of funding, according to the United Nations. U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon called for a two-week humanitarian ceasefire when he opened peace talks earlier this week, to allow life-saving supplies into the country. (Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Alex Whiting; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)