SANAA, Yemen — A recent bout of fighting between Yemeni government forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition and Shiite rebels around the Red Sea port city of Hodeida could jeopardize shipments of 46,000 tons of wheat expected to arrive within the next ten days, the World Food Program said on Friday.
The latest offensive began last week following the failure of what was hoped to be renewed peace talks to resume in Geneva. It was concentrated in the eastern and southern entrances to the city, which is considered the lifeline of Yemen.
WFP spokesman Herve Verhoosel said humanitarian workers, infrastructure and food supplies have been targeted in recent days as clashes are still ongoing near the Red Sea Mill Silos, a critical facility for WFP operations.
The fighting could impact WFP's ability to supply up to 3.5 million people in dire need in northern and central Yemen for one month, he said.
He said a mortar shell launched by an unidentified armed group also hit a WFP warehouse in Hodeida city holding enough food to assist 19,200 people, wounding a guard at the warehouse.
U.N. Human Coordinator for Yemen Lise Grande said on Thursday that the situation in Hodeida has deteriorated dramatically in the past few days.
"People are struggling to survive," said Grande. "More than 25 percent of children are malnourished; 900,000 people in the governorate are desperate for food and 90,000 pregnant women are at enormous risk."
The fighting for Hodeida has also effectively shut down the main artery linking the port city to the rest of the country, the Save the Children charity said Thursday.
Tamer Kirolos of Save the Children said "it's quite literally a matter of life and death" for the main road linking Hodeida to the capital Sanaa to remain open.
"This year alone we expect some 400,000 children under five to suffer from severe acute malnutrition ... Unless supply routes remain open this figure could increase dramatically, putting the lives of thousands of children at risk from entirely preventable causes," he said.
He urged warring parties "to end hostilities immediately, commit to a ceasefire and give peace a chance."
The Norwegian Refugee Council has called for Hodeida port and the arteries that lead from it to remain open.
"Hodeida is not a trophy and its citizens are not toys ... A single act of force to disrupt the flow of supplies from Hodeida would be a deadly blow for millions," said Jan Engelan of the NRC.
Aid agencies in Yemen have identified close to 500,000 people that had fled homes in Hodeida between June and August, NRC said. So far in September, 55,000 people have been displaced from across Hodeida, It added.
The U.N. special envoy met with representatives of the rebels, known as Houthis, in Muscat, Oman's capital, to discuss ways to ensure their participation in future consultations and prepare for his visit to the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, Martin Griffiths tweeted on Thursday.
Griffiths sought earlier this week to downplay the significance of the failure of launching peace talks, saying on Saturday that he would head back to Yemen and neighboring Oman "within days" to work toward an agreement on a new date.
A delegation of the internationally recognized government arrived in Geneva last week for the talks, which were supposed to start on September 6, but the Houthis did not, arguing their safe return was not guaranteed.
Shortly after the failure to launch peace talks, the government forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition renewed their offensive to retake the rebel-held Hodeida. They had tried to overrun Hodeida in June but were blocked by the rebels' resistance.
One main objective of the ongoing fighting is to cut off the road between Hodeida and Sanaa, thus depriving the capital city, which is controlled by the Iranian-backed Houthis, from supplies arriving by sea. Government forces are also trying to cut off the road to Taiz, a fiercely contested and strategic city south of Hodeida.
Also Friday, a Saudi apache helicopter crashed in Yemen's easternmost province of al-Mahra on Friday, killing two crew people, tribal leaders said on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals.
The state-run Saudi Press Agency, quoting military spokesman Col. Turki al-Maliki, acknowledged the death of a "pilot and his co-pilot" in a helicopter that crashed following a "technical fault." He said the Saudi Royal Land Forces helicopter went down at 8:20 a.m. Friday while conducting operations in Yemen's al-Mahra province.
Impoverished Yemen has been embroiled in the war pitting the Saudi-led coalition against the Iran-aligned Houthis since March 2015. The war against the rebels has devastated impoverished Yemen, turning the Arab nation into the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with more than 20 million people in need of assistance.