CAIRO (AP) -- Yemen's rebels last month turned back a World Food Program shipment meant to feed some 100,000 families in the war-torn nation that's been pushed to the brink of starvation, a spokesperson for the aid agency said Tuesday.
The rejection of the shipment came as the WFP was in tense talks with the rebels, known as Houthis, who had blocked the agency's attempt to register millions of Yemenis in need of aid by using biometrics as a means of preventing food aid theft. The WFP has mainly blamed the rebels for stealing the food aid. The rejected shipment will also deprive thousands of families of badly needed aid.
The conflict in Yemen began with the 2014 takeover of the capital, Sanaa, by the Iranian-backed Houthis who drove out the internationally recognized government. Months later, in March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition launched its air campaign to prevent the rebels from overrunning the country's south.
In the relentless campaign, Saudi-led airstrikes have hit schools, hospitals and wedding parties and killed thousands of Yemeni civilians. The Houthis have used drones and missiles to attack Saudi Arabia and have targeted vessels in the Red Sea.
As the world's worst humanitarian disaster unfolded, aid agencies rushed to help, risking getting caught in the middle between the warring parties.
Last week, the WFP partially suspended aid as talks with the Houthis went nowhere and after the agency accused the rebels of continuing to loot aid and using millions of dollars of international donations for their war economy.
The suspension affects 850,000 people in Sanaa, where the WFP says the bulk of the looting takes place. WFP said earlier this year that it aims to feed around 12 million Yemenis in 2019, at a cost of $175 million a month.
The rebels, who control northern Yemen, responded with a fierce media campaign against the WFP, accusing it of sending spoiled food.
On Sunday, the Houthi-run news agency SABA quoted Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a high rebel official, as accusing the WFP of trying to cover up spoiled food and expired aid. Al-Houthi had been advocating for WFP cash donations in place of what he said was "corrupted food."
The WFP says some of the food held for long in areas controlled by the rebels had indeed gone bad.
The Associated Press obtained the copy of a letter from WFP chief in Yemen, Stephen Anderson, notifying the Houthis on June 11 that the agency is in the process of getting rid of over 204 tons of expired flour held by the rebels at the Sanaa airport.
The letter said the WFP was planning to destroy the flour at a Sanaa dump.
The Houthis have intentionally broadcast images of food from the WFP they've held on for too long and that had gone bad, as a way to discredit the aid agency among starving Yemenis, another aid official said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Last month, the rebels ordered over 8,000 tons of flour sent by the WFP out of the Red Sea port of Hodeida, claiming it was contaminated with dead insects. A subsequent check on the cargo, now docked in Oman, showed it was clean, the WFP spokesperson added.
"WFP can't tolerate groundless rejection of essential humanitarian cargo when millions in Yemen face malnutrition and starvation," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the incidents.
The AP reported last December that armed factions on both sides of the conflict were stealing much-needed food aid, diverting it to their fighters or reselling it for profit. Some groups are blocking deliveries to communities they view as their enemies, the AP found.
Days before aid suspension, David Beasley, WFP executive director, told the U.N. Security Council that the agency in late 2018 uncovered "serious evidence that food was being diverted and going to the wrong people" in the capital of Sanaa and other Houthi-controlled areas.