SANAA, YEMEN - Hundreds of humanitarian staffers from nearly 50 agencies are stranded in Yemen or unable to enter the country after a Saudi-led military coalition shut down Yemen's air, land and sea ports, a U.N. spokesman said Wednesday.
Ahmed Ben Lassoued, a Sanaa-based media official at The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told The Associated Press that a total of 32 flights have been canceled since Nov. 6, when the coalition ordered a tightening of the Yemen blockade.
He said 220 humanitarian staff from nearly 50 agencies in Djibouti and Amman are waiting to return to northern Yemen. Another 310 passengers are stranded in Sanaa and other duty stations in northern Yemen, waiting to depart.
"The blockade imposed on the humanitarian flights is severely hampering humanitarian operations, impeding humanitarians to provide much-needed assistance to millions of people who rely on it for their survival," Ben Lassoued said.
The coalition has announced that it's lifting the blockade after initially tightening it on Nov. 6 after a missile attack on Riyadh by Yemeni rebels known as Houthis.
Ships were ordered to leave the Red Sea ports of Hodeida and Salef, the only lifeline to northern Yemen where most of the population lives. The two ports are under the control of the Houthis.
The conflict in Yemen pits the Shiite Houthi rebels and the ousted president's forces against the internationally recognized government and its main backer, the Saudi-led coalition.
For more than two years, airstrikes and ground fighting have left over 10,000 people dead, driven 3 million from their homes and destroyed the country's already fragile infrastructure. International aid groups describe Yemen as the world's worst humanitarian crisis as millions are at risk of famine.
The New-York based International Rescue Committee on Wednesday urged an end to the blockade, calling it a "collective punishment" of Yemenis that risks driving 500 children into malnutrition every week. It said the closure of Yemeni ports by the Saudi-led coalition as part of its fight against Houthi rebels creates "humanitarian misery for millions of Yemenis."
The IRC also condemned the international community, saying its silence "is a disgrace and is enabling what could be collective punishment."
Each week, the group said, 500 children join hundreds of thousands suffering from malnutrition. "Sanctions and inspections should not be used as weapons of war," the group said in a statement.
On Wednesday, two flights landed in Sanaa airport for the first time. One was tasked with evacuating five staffers of the International Committee of the Red Cross, according to Soumaya Beltifa of the ICRC in Yemen. Al-Masirah TV network, run by Houthis, described it as the first humanitarian flight to come to Sanaa.
A second flight carried Russian diplomats, according to an airport official. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.