By Tom Miles
GENEVA (Reuters) - Yemen's peace talks next week are an opportunity to bring in urgent humanitarian aid for millions of people who have been deprived of vital supplies since the war escalated nine months ago, the U.N. humanitarian chief said on Thursday.
"In Yemen I’m very hopeful that Dec. 15 will herald a new peaceful context in which we can very much extend (aid) - both rapidly and in volume - to all the people in need," Stephen O'Brien said in an interview.
"Whilst just over 21 million people have some form of humanitarian need across Yemen, the immediate vital needs encompass something in the region of 5 million people for food, water, shelter and urgent medical care on all sides of the conflict lines."
The United Nations will launch peace talks in Switzerland on Tuesday, when a seven-day ceasefire is expected to begin.
Gulf Arab states called on Thursday for an international reconstruction conference for Yemen after any deal to end its civil war, which has killed 6,000 people and caused widespread damage to the economy and infrastructure.
Yemen relies on imports for almost all its food and all of its medicine, but a near-total blockade slowed shipments to a trickle for months this year, as a coalition led by Saudi Arabia inspected shipments in a bid to thwart any arms deliveries to Iranian-linked Houthi rebels.
The most recent flashpoint, the city of Taiz, has been largely cut off by fighting for several months. Taiz governorate and nine other of Yemen's 22 governorates are in an "emergency" food situation, one step below famine on a five-point scale.
But the U.N. World Food Programme said on Thursday it had managed to send two convoys of trucks into the city, a total of 31 trucks with enough food for 145,000 people for a month. A third convoy is on its way, WFP said.
O'Brien said there had also been a significant increase in access for humanitarian supplies arriving at Yemen's Hudaydah port, and a new U.N. verification and inspection mechanism would soon start up, allowing unfettered access for commercial ships.
Aid workers have long said only a return of commercial shipping can bring the volume of supplies needed for Yemen. Fuel has been in especially short supply, with a knock-on effect on electricity supplies, water pumping, hospitals and inflation.
O'Brien said the new system, which involves the United Nations checking any suspect cargoes, would be up and running "in days or weeks, not months".
"It is a confidence measure, in compliance with the (U.N.) resolutions, in order to enable the commercial shipping supplies to get back to volume," he said.
(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)