Saudi warns U.N., aid workers to leave rebel-held areas in Yemen

A Houthi militant sits amidst debris from the Yemeni Football Association building, which was damaged in a Saudi-led air strike, in Sanaa, May 31, 2015. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi (Reuters)

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia, which is leading air strikes against rebels in neighboring Yemen, has warned the United Nations and international aid groups to protect staff by removing them from areas held by Yemen's Houthi rebels, a letter seen by Reuters on Thursday said. It was not immediately clear why Saudi Arabia issued the warning and how many aid groups aside from the United Nations, received the note. The Saudi U.N. mission was not immediately available for comment. The short note sent by the Saudi Embassy in London on Friday said the intention was to "protect the international organizations and their employees" presumably from coalition airstrikes. Saudi Arabia leads a coalition of nine Arab countries that began a military campaign in March to prevent Houthi rebels, whom it sees as a proxy for Iran, from taking complete control of Yemen. U.N. aid chief Stephen O'Brien acknowledged receipt of the note in a Sunday letter seen by Reuters and said the humanitarian community would continue to deliver aid across Yemen impartially on the basis of need. He reminded Saudi Arabia of obligations under international humanitarian law to facilitate access for aid. The Saudi mission to the United Nations responded on Monday that Riyadh would "do its utmost to continue to facilitate and support" humanitarian aid work in Yemen, while also repeating its request for U.N. and international aid workers to leave areas close to Houthi bases for military operations. "The coalition's request is consistent with its obligations under international humanitarian law and, in no way, can be misinterpreted to indicate any hindrance to humanitarian access and the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Yemen," it said. The U.N. Security Council is due to discuss the humanitarian situation in Yemen on Tuesday at the request of Russia, diplomats said. The Houthis and their allies, forces loyal to former Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh, accuse the coalition of launching a war of aggression. Nearly 6,000 people have been killed since the coalition entered the conflict in March, almost half of them civilians. U.N. sanctions monitors said in a report last month that the Saudi-led coalition has targeted civilians with air strikes and some of the attacks could be a crimes against humanity. The panel of experts documented 119 coalition sorties "relating to violations of international humanitarian law" and said that "many attacks involved multiple air strikes on multiple civilian objects." (Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)