UN warns of impending famine in conflict-torn Yemen

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Cut Off From the World: The Plight of Yemen

UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- The U.N. special envoy for Yemen warned Wednesday that the conflict-torn Middle East nation is "one step" from famine, with 31 million people in need of humanitarian assistance compared with just 7 million two years ago.

Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed told reporters after briefing the U.N. Security Council behind closed doors that all parties to the conflict are responsible for the dire suffering of the Yemeni people until there is "a true cease-fire."

The humanitarian crisis in the Arab world's poorest country has escalated as the conflict has intensified.

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UN warns of impending famine in conflict-torn Yemen
Yemenis inspect a destroyed building in Aden's suburbs on June 24, 2015 after rebel forces and loyalist fighters were locked in fierce fighting. Warplanes from the Saudi-led Arab coalition have launched heavy raids against rebel positions in seven Yemeni provinces, according to witnesses and military sources. AFP PHOTO / SALEH AL-OBEIDI (Photo credit should read SALEH AL-OBEIDI/AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke billows from the Faj Attan Hill following a reported airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition on an army arms depot, now under Huthi rebel control, on April 20, 2015, in Sanaa. The UN this week called the humanitarian crisis in Yemen one of the 'largest and most complex in the world'. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
SANAA, YEMEN - MARCH 30: Shiite Houthis use anti-aircraft guns as the Saudi-led coalition strikes hit Houthi targets in Sanaa as part of the 'Decisive Storm' operation in Sanaa, Yemen on March 30, 2015. (Photo by Sinan Yiter/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SANAA, YEMEN - MARCH 30: Shiite Houthis use anti-aircraft guns as the Saudi-led coalition strikes hit Houthi targets in Sanaa as part of the 'Decisive Storm' operation in Sanaa, Yemen on March 30, 2015. (Photo by Sinan Yiter/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A Pakistani woman (R), evacuated from Yemen, is greeted by relative on her arrival in Benazir Bhutto International Airport in Islamabad on March 30, 2015. Pakistan evacuated more than 500 of its citizens from Yemen by jumbo jet and sent a naval frigate to rescue others stranded in the war-torn country, officials said. AFP PHOTO / FAROOQ NAEEM (Photo credit should read FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images)
SANAA, YEMEN - MARCH 30: Houthis attack Saudi-led coalition with anti-aircraft weapons after coalition carried out airstrikes in Sanaa, Yemen on March 30, 2015 as part of the 'Decisive Storm' operation against the Houthis. (Photo by Sinan Yiter/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SANAA, YEMEN - MARCH 30: Houthis attack Saudi-led coalition with anti-aircraft weapons after coalition carried out airstrikes in Sanaa, Yemen on March 30, 2015 as part of the 'Decisive Storm' operation against the Houthis. (Photo by Sinan Yiter/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SANAA, YEMEN - MARCH 27: Smoke rises after Saudi-led coalition carried out airstrike in Sanaa, Yemen on March 30, 2015 as part of the 'Decisive Storm' operation against the Houthis. (Photo by Sinan Yiter/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SANAA, YEMEN - MARCH 27: Smoke rises after Saudi-led coalition carried out airstrike in Sanaa, Yemen on March 30, 2015 as part of the 'Decisive Storm' operation against the Houthis. (Photo by Sinan Yiter/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SANAA, YEMEN - MARCH 26: Yemeni men search for survivors in rubble of buildings after airstrikes of a 10-member coalition of Gulf countries in Yemeni capital Sanaa on March 26, 2015. Saudi Arabia has launched military operations in Yemen, as part of a coalition of over 10 countries in response to a direct request from the legitimate government of Yemen, against the Shiite Houthi group, which seized capital Sanaa and several provinces. (Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A Yemeni man sits in the rubble of his house in the Yemeni capital on March 26, 2015 after Saudi air strikes against Huthi rebels near Sanaa Airport. Saudi Arabia launched a military operation overnight in Yemen by a regional coalition to defend the government of embattled President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi as the country teeters on the brink of civil war. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Yemeni civilians and security forces stand at the site of a Saudi air strike against Huthi rebels near Sanaa Airport on March 26, 2015, which killed at least 13 people. Saudi warplanes bombed Huthi rebels in Yemen, launching a military intervention by a 10-nation coalition to prevent the fall of embattled President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
SANAA, YEMEN - MARCH 22: A group of people hold banners as they march during a demonstration against Shiite Houthi movement that interfere to the country's government, at Gamal Abdul Nasser Street in Taizz, Yemen on March 22, 2015. (Photo by Waddah Abdulqade Abdulqawi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Yemenis drive in a car loaded with their belongings in the Yemeni capital as they move to a safer place on March 26, 2015 after Saudi air strikes against Huthi rebels near Sanaa Airport. Saudi Arabia launched a military operation overnight in Yemen by a regional coalition to defend the government of embattled President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi as the country teeters on the brink of civil war. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Yemeni police cadets loyal to the Huthi militia which controls Sanaa march during a group funeral for the victims of last week's multiple suicide bombings that targeted Huthi mosques in the Yemeni capital, on March 25, 2015. The Islamic State (IS) jihadist group claimed responsibility for the March 20 attacks on two mosques in Sanaa that killed at least 142 people. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
ADEN, YEMEN - MARCH 25: Members of Yemen's General People's Committee deploy at mechanized unit in Aden, Yemen on March 25, 2015. (Photo by Wael Shaif Thabet/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Yemeni police cadets loyal to the Huthi militia which controls Sanaa march during a group funeral for the victims of last week's multiple suicide bombings that targeted Huthi mosques in the Yemeni capital, on March 25, 2015. The Islamic State (IS) jihadist group claimed responsibility for the March 20 attacks on two mosques in Sanaa that killed at least 142 people. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
ADEN, YEMEN - MARCH 24: A group of Yemeni men who want to return to military stage a demonstration outside the Military Command in Aden, Yemen on March 24, 2015. (Photo by Wail Shaif Thabet/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
TAIZZ, YEMEN - MARCH 23: Police intervene to the demonstrators during a demonstration against Shiite Houthi movement that interfere to the country's government, in Taizz, Yemen on March 23, 2015. (Photo by Waddah Abdulqade Abdulqawi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SANAA, YEMEN - MARCH 22: A group of people hold banners as they march during a demonstration against Shiite Houthi movement that interfere to the country's government, at Gamal Abdul Nasser Street in Taizz, Yemen on March 22, 2015. (Photo by Waddah Abdulqade Abdulqawi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
TAIZZ, YEMEN - MARCH 23: People hold flags and banners during a demonstration against Shiite Houthi movement that interfere to the country's government, in Taizz, Yemen on March 23, 2015. (Photo by Waddah Abdulqade Abdulqawi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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Ground fighting and Saudi-led airstrikes targeting Yemen's Shiite Houthi rebels killed nearly 100 people Wednesday.

The fighting in Yemen pits the Houthis and allied troops loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh against southern separatists, local and tribal militias, Sunni Islamic militants and loyalists of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is now based in Saudi Arabia. The rebels seized the capital, Sanaa, in September. In March, a Saudi-led and U.S.-backed coalition began launching airstrikes against the rebels and their allies.

The conflict has left 20 million Yemenis without access to safe drinking water and uprooted over one million people from their homes, Ould Cheikh Ahmed said.

A near-blockade of Yemen's ports has made it very difficult to deliver humanitarian aid. But the International Committee of the Red Cross said a ship carrying 1,000 tons of food and three large generators from Oman had docked in Yemen's Hodeida port on Wednesday.

"In view of the economic blockade that affects all the people in Yemen, the arrival of this emergency aid is a welcome development," said Antoine Grand, who heads the ICRC in Yemen. "The food and generators will make a difference for tens of thousands of people directly affected by the armed conflict."

While the ship's arrival was a rare piece of good news, fighting kicked off at dawn Wednesday in the cities of Ibb, Aden, Taiz, Marib, Dhale and the Houthi stronghold of Saada, killing nearly 100 people, including many civilians, Yemeni officials said. In Aden dozens of shells fell on densely populated neighborhoods, while artillery duels shook the city of Taiz.

The Houthi-controlled Interior Ministry said that some 20 civilians were killed Tuesday by Saudi-led air raids.

Ould Cheikh Ahmed, who mediated talks between the parties in Geneva last week, said that despite the deep divisions and failure to reach any agreement, "both sides showed signs of constructive engagement and there is an emerging common ground upon which we can build to achieve an eventual cease-fire coupled with the withdrawal of combatants."

He called for a humanitarian pause during the current Muslim holy month of Ramadan as a first step toward a sustainable cease-fire that would be monitored by "an international, impartial mechanism."

In efforts to reach a truce, Yemeni security officials said representatives of the southern separatist movement were meeting with the Houthis in the Omani capital, Muscat.

A delegation from the party of former president Saleh was also headed to Moscow to meet Russian officials, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

Ould Cheikh Ahmed said the Omanis and others are trying to facilitate the U.N.-led process.

In the evening, the Yemeni officials said a bomb went off in front of offices of Houthi-controlled state news agency SABA in Sanaa, killing once soldier and leading the rebels to evacuate the building and cordon off the area.

And in the Hadramout region, a suspected U.S. drone strike hit a car near the city of Mukalla, killing at least five suspected al-Qaida fighters, they said.

---

Lederer reported from the United Nations.

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