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UN: Famine Can Still Be Averted in Yemen

A UNHCR employee arranges aid at the Dubai International Humanitarian city in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, before shipping them to Yemen, May 14, 2015.

As the humanitarian situation in war-torn Yemen continued its downward spiral, the United Nations' humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien said there is still time to avert a potential famine if the fighting stops.

“We have time to avert this, if we can get the supplies in," O'Brien told reporters by telephone from Berlin. "That is why we are calling for a pause so that we can get that safety in place for access.”

Yemeni Health facilities report more than 2,800 people killed and 13,000 injured since Saudi-led airstrikes began in late March to aid the government against Houthi rebels who have seized several cities and driven Yemen’s president into exile.

The country, already one of the poorest in the Arab world, imported 90 percent of its goods before the conflict. A Saudi blockade of Yemen’s ports has made it nearly impossible to get fuel, food and other urgently needed supplies to 80 percent of the population - more than 21 million Yemenis - who are in need of humanitarian assistance.

O’Brien, who assumed his post on June 1, said delays at Yemeni ports are compounded by fuel shortages that prevent cargo being transported onward. He said aid convoys are regularly stopped at checkpoints or roadblocks, delayed by parties to the conflict or postponed because of fighting.

Last week, aid agencies warned of a “looming humanitarian catastrophe” in Yemen and appealed for $1.6 billion to meet the most pressing needs. On Thursday, O’Brien authorized the U.N. Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to release $25 million to help alleviate the crisis.

The United Nations has been pressing for a two-week halt to the fighting to allow in humanitarian assistance. U.N. efforts to mediate a temporary truce between the parties failed last week at talks in Geneva.

But despite the difficulties, the United Nations and its partner agencies have managed to reach 4.4 million people with aid since the conflict escalated in March.