Saudi blockade brings Sanaa to brink of ‘famine’
SANAA - Residents of Yemen's rebel-held capital said Thursday rising food and fuel prices were making life increasingly difficult because of a Saudi-led blockade that the UN warned could bring the world's worst famine in decades.
Sanaa residents said the price of gasoline jumped 50 percent, the value of the national currency plummeted and prices of basic goods rose after the Saudi-led coalition sealed off Yemen's borders on Monday.
"The situation was already catastrophic, but that didn't stop Saudi Arabia from imposing a total blockade for us to die of hunger," said taxi driver Saeed Kanaf.
Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened in neighbouring Yemen in March 2015 with the stated aim of rolling back gains by the Iran-backed Huthi rebels and restoring the government of Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi to power.
Since then, the coalition has enforced a de facto blockade on land crossings and air and sea ports, and the UN and other international humanitarian organisations are required to take permission for sporadic aid deliveries.
On Monday the coalition said it was closing Yemen's borders and ports, accusing Iran of being behind a rebel attack in which a missile was intercepted near Riyadh airport over the weekend.
The coalition said the tightened blockade was temporary and aimed at filling gaps in inspection procedures to halt the "smuggling of missiles and military equipment".
The missile attack from Yemen triggered a war of words between Saudi Arabia and its regional rival Iran, which has consistently denied smuggling arms to the Huthis but said the Shiite rebels were justified in responding militarily after years of bombardment by the coalition.
The UN, which had already listed Yemen as the world's number one humanitarian crisis, responded to the coalition decision with dismay, warning that the situation was already "catastrophic" in the country.
UN aid chief Mark Lowcock, speaking to reporters after a closed-door Security Council session on Wednesday, warned that "it will be the largest famine the world has seen for many decades, with millions of victims."
Around 17 million Yemenis are in desperate need of food, seven million of whom are at risk of famine. Cholera has caused more than 2,000 deaths.
On Tuesday, a Red Cross shipment of chlorine tablets, which are used for the prevention of cholera, was blocked at Yemen's northern border, the International Committee for the Red Cross said.
- Fear and loathing in Sanaa -
In Sanaa, traffic has been backed up at petrol stations, where the price at the pump had jumped by half and diesel prices had nearly tripled.
The Yemeni riyal, trading at 370 to the dollar ahead of the Saturday missile launch, has already dropped in value -- with the rate now at 402, according to money changers in Sanaa.
Gas cylinders, relied on for cooking, vanished from circulation in the wake of the renewed blockade, only reappearing on Thursday following the intervention of rebel leaders.
The Huthi authorities announced a series of measures aimed at riding out the crisis, including shutting down petrol stations accused of jacking up prices and creating a commission to organise the distribution of fuel -- for which they claim to have substantial reserves.
But residents said they are struggling as prices of basic goods start to rise by 10 and even 20 percent.
"Do not be surprised to see people dying in the streets if this air and sea blockade continues," Mohammed Wassabi, a private sector employee, said gloomily.
The number of beggars in Sanaa is at unprecedented levels, according to charities, with the street population quadrupling over the course of the war.
Some civil servants have not received salaries in 10 months, forcing many to moonlight in order to survive.
To quell the general unrest, the cash-strapped rebel administration nonetheless managed to distribute half of those unpaid wages over the past week.
The situation, according to humanitarian organisations, is even worse in remote rebel-held areas outside Sanaa, and the UN warning of famine extends to the entire country.
The Arab world's poorest nation, Yemen is almost totally dependent on imports for food, fuel and medicine.
Twenty-three NGOs and UN agencies said in a statement that the country's vaccine stock could be depleted in a month if the blockade is maintained.
The UN's rights office said 5,295 civilians had been killed in Yemen since the coalition offensive began, and 8,873 have been wounded.