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U.N. Steps In After Saudi Arabia Fails To Deliver Aid To Yemen


We're going to check in next on Yemen and what the conflict there means for civilians. Saudi airstrikes began in March to push back Shiite rebels who had taken over the capital. Now the Saudi-led coalition is reinforcing its ground troops. The Saudis have also promised the U.N. a huge aid package, but that hasn't come through yet. Aid agencies say they need those donations now, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Purnima Kashyap runs the World Food Program's office in Yemen, and she says most of the country's 25 million people need some assistance, and for many, the situation is increasingly dire.

PURNIMA KASHYAP: Now about 13 million people require food assistance, of which half that population is very severely food insecure. And that means they don't know where their next meal is going to come from.

KELEMEN: She's just back from an area in Northern Yemen where she met with families uprooted by the conflict.

KASHYAP: Let me tell you. There are about 1.5 million people who have been displaced from their homes, living in either schools or in temporary shelters or some of them being hosted by the local populations. When we were talking to these people, this was very remote area. They basically were living on bread and tea.

KELEMEN: Kashyap says the World Food Program managed to deliver about one month's supply of wheat flower, lentils and oil to them, but access has been difficult. The U.S. is one of the largest financial backers of the WFP, and that's one reason why Kashyap is here in Washington. She says she's also hopeful that Saudi Arabia, which is leading the military campaign in Yemen against the Houthi rebels, will come through with more than $140 million to help meet this year's needs. But Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir says the Kingdom will only give to U.N. agencies if they provide clear plans for how the assistance will be distributed.


ADEL AL-JUBEIR: It is not reasonable to expect a donor to give money without expecting to see where the funds will be spent and how.

KELEMEN: He was speaking to reporters after King Salman's visit to the White House last week where Yemen was under discussion. The U.S. has supported the Saudi military campaign there. The foreign minister says he wants to make sure that Houthi rebels in Yemen don't benefit from aid in areas they control.


AL-JUBEIR: Or that they don't use the fuel that's provided to the Yemeni people in order to fuel their war machine.

KELEMEN: Saudi Arabia has imposed a blockade on Yemen, but he says it is willing to let in food and fuel as long as the U.N. helps to inspect the cargo.


AL-JUBEIR: So of course you will have an inspections mechanism to make sure that you don't have agents being placed in Yemen and you don't have weapons being delivered to the Houthis.

KELEMEN: The WFP's Kashyap says aid groups like hers need to be neutral and have to be able to reach civilians wherever they are.

KASHYAP: We need to negotiate with everybody for the - in the interest of the population that is hungry. We need humanitarian pauses. We need moments where we can access the populations. And the outreach to the people is extremely critical for us.

KELEMEN: Ninety-five percent of Yemen's food and fuel is imported, she says, so reopening ports will be key. But she says ports and other infrastructure are taking a beating in this war, and that will make it harder for the WFP to reach its goals not just to feed people, but to revive the commercial sector so Yemenis will eventually be less dependent on humanitarian aid. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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