CAIRO — The top United Nations relief official said Thursday that grain to feed 3.7 million Yemenis is stranded and possibly rotting in warehouses in the front-line port city of Hudaydah, while nearly 10 million Yemenis verge on famine.
The fate of the grain supply has become a symbol of faltering international efforts to implement a limited truce in Hudaydah between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition, which was signed in December.
Distribution of the grain is a matter of life-or-death urgency for suffering Yemenis, in a war that began nearly four years ago and has become what the United Nations has called the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crisis.
Two out of three Yemenis do not know where their next meal will come from.
Mark Lowcock, the United Nations relief coordinator, said in a statement that the Houthis had refused permission to United Nations officials to reach the Red Sea Mills, where the World Food Program, the organization’s anti-hunger agency, has 51,000 tons of wheat in storage. That is a quarter of the agency’s stock in Yemen.
“I appreciate the genuine efforts that have been made on all sides to find a solution. But it remains elusive,” Mr. Lowcock said, urging the Houthis to allow access to the grain.
Last month mortar shellfire damaged two silos at the Red Sea Mills, which lies in territory controlled by the Saudi-led coalition, starting a fire that destroyed some of the grain. The United Nations wants to cross the front line to bring the grain into Houthi-controlled northern Yemen, where the greatest number of hunger-stricken people live.
If they cannot reach the grain soon, they warn, some will spoil and have to be discarded.
One glimpse of hope came with a separate announcement from other United Nations officials that the warring parties in Hudaydah had reached a preliminary agreement on how to implement the terms of the cease-fire deal signed in Sweden in December.
After months of fighting for the port, the main channel for relief aid entering Yemen, both sides agreed to stop fighting in Hudaydah and withdraw their forces to the city limits. But the deal stalled as both sides jockeyed for position on the ground.
A dispute over where to hold talks on implementing the truce led Patrick Cammaert, a retired Dutch general heading the United Nations mission, to convene meetings aboard a chartered boat moored in the Red Sea off Hudaydah.
On Jan. 31, Mr. Cammaert was replaced by a Danish general, Michael Anker Lollesgaard, and after three days of talks this week the United Nations mission said it had reached “a preliminary compromise” on implementing the withdrawal. It did not give further details.
Despite some skirmishes, the truce in Hudaydah has been largely respected. But military action elsewhere in Yemen, like a Houthi drone attack on a military parade that targeted senior Yemeni officers, strained the talks.
A prisoner swap on Jan. 30, when one Saudi soldier was exchanged for seven Houthis, raised hopes that a proposed prisoner exchange involving up to 15,000 fighters could be fully implemented.
Aid workers hope that a full agreement over Hudaydah would ensure full operations at its port, as well as access to the giant silos of grain stored nearby.
Stéphane Dujarric, a United Nations spokesman in New York, said blocked humanitarian access to the Red Sea Mills warehouses had been an issue “for quite some time.”
Asked at a regular daily briefing what would happen if the grain could not be distributed, he said, “the Yemeni people continue to suffer, that’s what happens.”
Follow Declan Walsh on Twitter: @declanwalsh.
Rick Gladstone contributed reporting from New York.
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