The UN’s humanitarian chief warned that a Houthi rebel advance on oil-rich Marib would endanger the lives of millions of civilians.
The UN’s humanitarian chief says he is “very alarmed” by a Houthi rebel advance on the Yemeni government’s last northern stronghold, saying an assault on the city of Marib could endanger millions of civilians.
Mark Lowcock, the UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, tweeted on Tuesday that an assault would endanger two million civilians and could cause hundreds of thousands to flee the city, which would have “unimaginable humanitarian consequences”.
The Iran-linked Houthi rebels linked have this month resumed an offensive to seize oil-rich Marib, some 120 kilometres (75 miles) east of the rebel-held capital Sanaa.
The city’s loss would be a major blow for Yemen’s government, which is backed by a Saudi-led coalition, as well as for the civilian population and the hundreds of thousands of displaced people sheltering in camps in the region.
“Now is the time to de-escalate, not to add even more to the misery of the Yemeni people,” Lowcock said in his tweet.
An assault on the city would put two million civilians at risk, with hundreds of thousands potentially forced to flee – with unimaginable humanitarian consequences. Now is the time to de-escalate, not to add even more to the misery of the Yemeni people.
— Mark Lowcock (@UNReliefChief) February 15, 2021
Military officials from the Yemeni government told bioreports news agency that the rebels had advanced towards the city on two fronts overnight after heavy fighting with government forces.
Dozens from both sides have been killed in the past 24 hours alone, they said. The total casualty toll from the battle for Marib is unknown but reports indicate it is now in the hundreds.
“The rebels have advanced north and west of the city after seizing al-Zor [in Sirwah district] up to the western sides of Marib dam, and tightened their grip on hills overlooking supply lines for several fronts,” one of the officials said.
The Saudi-led coalition, which intervened militarily in Yemen six year ago, has been pounding rebel positions.
The Houthi-run Al Masirah television on Tuesday reported a total of 13 air raids in Marib – 11 on locations in the district of Sirwah, and two in the district of Madghal.
Once a sanctuary
The fighting is endangering sprawling camps for internally displaced people, many of whom have fled several times before ending up in Marib, the only part of the north not under Houthi control.
Until early 2020, Marib had been spared the worst of Yemen’s six-year-old conflict, due to its strategic importance with its rich oil and gas reserves, and its location near the border of regional power Saudi Arabia.
It became a sanctuary for many in the early years of the war, taking in those hoping for a new start.
But that relative stability disappeared with fighting last year and – after a lull since October – residents once again risk being in the line of fire as the two sides battle for control.
“If fighting moves towards populated areas or these displacement sites, we will see people flee again and towards locations to the east and south of Marib city with even less resources,” International Organization for Migration spokeswoman Olivia Headon told bioreports.
“Much of this is desert area so just think about what any displacement in that direction would mean for families’ access to water.”
Headon said approximately 650 families had been forced to flee in the recent surge of fighting and that another shift in the front lines would lead to further waves of displacement.
Yemen’s grinding conflict has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions, according to international organisations, sparking what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The surge in violence comes shortly after Washington decided to remove the rebels from its list of “terrorist” groups – a move that will come into effect on Tuesday – in order to ensure aid is unimpeded and to pave the way to restart peace talks.
The Biden administration also ended US support for Saudi offensive operations in a major policy shift from the previous Trump administration. The US president has since appointed an envoy for Yemen in his efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict that has ravaged the poorest country in the Middle East.
Observers say the Houthis want to capture Marib as leverage before entering into any negotiations.
The rebels have also escalated attacks against Saudi Arabia in recent weeks.
Saudi state media said on Tuesday that another “booby-trapped drone” launched by the Houthis had been intercepted and destroyed near Abha airport, which earlier this month was struck by an attack that left an aircraft in flames.
Al Jazeera and News agencies