The UN Security Council has called for the key Yemeni ports of Hodeida and Saleef to be kept open and appealed for a political solution to end Yemen’s three-year conflict.
In a press statement after an emergency closed-door meeting, the council expressed “deep concerns about the risks to the humanitarian situation” following the launch of an offensive on Hodeida by the Saudi-led coalition.
The council “urged all sides to uphold their obligations under international humanitarian law”.
Britain’s UN ambassador Karen Pierce, who called the meeting, told reporters before it started that UN special envoy Martin Griffiths has been trying to negotiate the withdrawal of the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, who control Hodeida.
Mr Griffiths is expected to brief the council on Monday, including on his proposals to restart negotiations to restore peace.
The Saudi-led coalition backing Yemen’s exiled government captured a town south of the port city of Hodeida on Thursday as fierce fighting and air strikes pounded the area.
It was the second day of an offensive to capture the strategic harbour which is the main entry point for food in a country teetering on the brink of famine.
A Saudi military spokesman said forces were drawing closer to the Red Sea port in a campaign aimed at driving out Iranian-aligned Houthis, who have held Hodeida since 2015, and breaking the civil war’s long stalemate.
International aid agencies and the UN have warned the assault could shut down the vital aid route for 70% of Yemen’s food, as well as the bulk of humanitarian aid and fuel supplies.
Around two-thirds of Yemen’s population of 27 million relies on aid and 8.4 million are already at risk of starving.
The United Arab Emirates ambassador to UN agencies in Geneva maintained the Saudi-Emirati coalition had no choice but to act.
“Should we leave the Houthis smuggling missiles?” Obaid Salem al-Zaabi told a news conference. “This comes from this sea port. We already gave the United Nations the chance to operate from this seaport, and (the Houthis) refused.”
The ambassador’s comments contradict the conclusions of a UN panel of experts that said it was unlikely the Houthis were using the port for smuggling arms.
In a report in January, the panel cited the fact that ships coming into the port face random inspections, require UN approval and that no weapons have been seized since March 2017.
The UN and Western nations have accused Iran of supplying the Houthis with weapons, from assault rifles to the ballistic missiles they have fired deep into Saudi Arabia, including at the capital Riyadh.
More than 150 ballistic missiles have been fired into the kingdom by the Houthis, according to Saudi officials.