UNITED NATIONS, United States — The Security Council on Monday backed a high-stakes mission by a UN envoy to avert an attack by the Saudi-led coalition on a key port in Yemen that provides a lifeline for humanitarian aid.
The council met behind closed doors to hear UN envoy Martin Griffiths report on his diplomatic efforts to keep the rebel-held port of Hodeida open to shipments of aid and commercial goods.
Britain requested the urgent talks after telling aid agencies on the ground that it had received a warning from the United Arab Emirates that an attack was imminent.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said there were “intense negotiations” by Griffiths with Yemen’s rebel Houthis, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to find a “way to avoid the military confrontation in Hodeida.”
Following the closed-door meeting, Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, who is council president this month, called for de-escalation and said the top UN body would be “closely” following developments.
“We are hoping for the efforts of the special envoy to bring a positive resolution. We left it in his hands for the time being,” Nebenzia told reporters.
The United Nations has warned that up to 250,000 people were at risk if the coalition moves ahead with an all-out offensive to take the port, which is a major entry point for commercial supplies and aid.
UN aid chief Mark Lowcock, who also briefed the council, said an attack on Hodeida would be “catastrophic” and that aid agencies were hoping to “stay and deliver” in Yemen, which the UN describes as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Yemen relies on imports for 90 percent of its food and 70% of those transit through Hodeida, Lowcock said.
US leans on UAE
The coalition backing Yemen government troops has been closing in on Hodeida after accusing Houthi rebels of smuggling weapons through the port.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that he had spoken with Emirati leaders and urged them to work with the United Nations to ensure “the free flow of humanitarian aid and life-saving commercial imports” through Hodeida.
“We recognize the UAE’s security concerns and these need to be addressed,” British Ambassador Karen Pierce told reporters. “But we are also worried about the humanitarian situation.”
Griffiths is set to present on Monday a new peace plan for Yemen, but he has warned that military action could derail that effort.
Eleven humanitarian aid agencies including Oxfam and Save the Children separately wrote to British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson urging him to warn the coalition that it will lose British support if it attacks Hodeida.
“If an attack does take place, casualties on all sides will be high with a likely catastrophic impact on the civilian population,” they wrote.
More than 22 million people in Yemen are in need of aid — 8.4 million of whom are on the brink of starvation, according to the United Nations.
Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has been leading a military campaign to push back the Houthis and restore the internationally recognized government to power.
The conflict has left nearly 10,000 people dead in Yemen, already the Arab world’s poorest country.