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Yemen: Looming attack on key port city puts civilian lives at grave risk

Reports that Saudi Arabia-led coalition is gearing up for major military offensive on strategic western port city of Hodeidah raises fears that vital entry point for humanitarian aid will be cut off

UK must halt all arms sales to Saudi, Amnesty warns ahead of major Yemen donor conference in Geneva today (25 April)

Amnesty International is urgently calling on the international community including the UK to prioritise the protection of civilians in Yemen amid reports of an imminent Saudi Arabia-led coalition attack on the port city of Hodeidah.

The looming military offensive on the country’s fourth most populated city threatens a new wave of unlawful killing and destruction in Yemen, putting families at huge risk and raising serious concerns that a crucial lifeline to a country that is 80% dependent on imports will be severed, exacerbating an already dire humanitarian situation. 

This threat to civilian safety comes as UN states meet at a Yemen donor conference in Geneva today (25 April). Amnesty International is restating its call for all states, including the UK and USA, to immediately halt the flow of any arms to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners that could be used to commit war crimes and seriously undermine humanitarian efforts in Yemen.

Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK said:

“The terrifying prospect of a major attack on a vital humanitarian access point in Yemen is yet another reminder of how the international community is failing the country’s innocent civilians. Yemeni families are facing severe suffering, starvation and death and their protection must urgently be prioritised.

“The UK can no longer hide behind its contribution in humanitarian aid to Yemen whilst blatantly ignoring the fact that we’ve actually authorised billions of pounds worth of the very weaponry that has helped fuel this devastating human tragedy in the first place.

“As UN states gather to pledge money to support the millions in critical need of humanitarian assistance, they must put pressure on all parties to the conflict to grant unfettered access for impartial humanitarian assistance so that it can reach civilians in need without delay.”

The city of Hodeidah had an estimated pre-war population of more than 400,000. The consequences of a military attack would be devastating far beyond Hodeidah since the city’s port is a crucial access point for lifesaving international aid. At the time the conflict started 80% of goods imported into Yemen flowed through Hodeidah’s port. The UN has warned that changes in the flow of imports through the port “would have grave consequences”.

Lynn Maalouf, Deputy Director for Research at Amnesty International’s office in Beirut said:

“The conflict in Yemen has already inflicted unbearable suffering on the country’s civilians, who have borne the brunt of the fighting for more than two years. The Saudi Arabia-led coalition has flagrantly flouted international humanitarian law by repeatedly carrying out indiscriminate and other unlawful air strikes in densely populated areas throughout Yemen. Thousands of civilians have been killed and injured; and there has been massive destruction and damage to homes and infrastructure. There must be no repeat of such unlawful killing and destruction in Hodeidah.

“As the frontline steadily shifts north along the Red Sea coast and the risk of an assault on Hodeidah city and surrounding areas looms, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, as well as Huthi-Saleh forces and other parties, must refrain from carrying out indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks. It is vital that they take all feasible precautions to ensure that the civilian population is protected. This includes giving residents effective advance warning of any attacks, and allowing time for them to evacuate safely.”

Over the past two years of fighting, all parties to the conflict, including the Huthi and anti-Huthi armed groups and militias, have carried out unlawful attacks that have killed or injured civilians and failed to distinguish between civilian objects and military objectives. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, more than 13,000 civilians have been killed or injured since fighting engulfed the country in March 2015.

Yemen is currently facing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. At least 21 million people are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance in order to survive, and approximately 7 million are on the brink of starvation.

Further background:

In May 2015, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition declared the northern city of Sa’da a “military zone”. Civilians in the area were not given enough time to evacuate, leading to thousands of people being trapped as the city was indiscriminately carpet-bombed by coalition forces for three months, in attacks that flagrantly violated international humanitarian law.

In mid-2015 both Huthi and anti-Huthi forces also endangered civilians as they battled to take control of Aden and Ta’iz. In ground-launched attacks documented by Amnesty International which injured and killed nearly 200 civilians, all parties routinely failed to distinguish between fighters and civilians in violation of international law. An urban war in the city of Ta’iz continues to this day unabated, contributing to civilian suffering.

Amnesty International’s researchers who were on the ground during the Sa’da offensive and the urban fighting in Aden and Ta’iz witnessed first-hand the devastating consequences for civilians who were granted neither safe passage nor effective warning.

The presence of fighters from the Huthi armed group or other pro-Saleh forces amongst civilians and in civilian areas would not justify the coalition treating the entire city of Hodeidah as a military target – whether or not they officially declare it a military zone as they did in Sa’da.

Notes to editors:

Amnesty International is the world’s largest human rights organisation with seven million supporters worldwide.

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