UN asks Saudi Arabia for more time to unload aid, evacuate foreigners in Yemen

The United Nations is pressing Saudi Arabia to ease its restrictions on flights in and out of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, saying the tight limitations have delayed the arrival of life-saving aid and frustrated the evacuation of thousands of stranded citizens from nearly 40 countries.

Johannes van der Klaauw, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, said Friday he’d discussed the issue with senior Saudi diplomats. He said other U.N. officials have voiced similar concerns to the United States, which is providing logistical support, including midair refueling of combat aircraft, to a Saudi-led bombing campaign against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed in the campaign, the U.N. has said.

The U.N. push for more air access to Yemen comes as humanitarian aid officials express growing concern that the country is running out of essential supplies, from food and water to gasoline.

The U.N. said Friday that “the last ships carrying food imports” arrived at the Red Sea port of al Hudaydah on April 5 and that “credible reports emerged yesterday of warships affiliated with parties to the conflict” blocking access to the port.

Van der Klaauw called for “an immediate humanitarian pause” to allow aid supplies and personnel to enter the country by air and sea.

“If you have only 90 minutes to get a plane in and out, to unload the shipments, it’s too short,” he said.

Restrictive aviation schedules on Thursday forced planes chartered by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, to abort their efforts to deliver supplies. One returned to Sudan and the other was redirected to nearby Djibouti.

Both planes, each loaded with 16 tons of medical supplies and other essentials, were able to land Friday in Sanaa, the agencies said.

Evacuation of stranded foreign nationals also is affected by the limited air access.

Joel Millman, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, said the agency has been thwarted so far in setting up as many as three flights a day to carry out stranded foreigners.

“We continue to wait for landing clearance for evacuation flights. It’s been one of our core missions since over a week ago,” he said. “We had hoped to initiate three flights on Wednesday, and we had hoped yesterday. Now we hope today. My information is the earliest we can expect to do these flights is Monday.”

Millman said 38 governments have requested advice or assistance in evacuating their nationals. He noted the agency has identified 13,000 citizens of foreign countries that it’s prepared to evacuate, “depending on their ability to be able to get to the lone airport” in Sanaa that the flights would depart from.

The U.S. to date has declined to mount a rescue operation for the 3,000 to 4,000 Americans estimated to still be in the country.

Since hostilities broke out on March 19, at least 1,042 people have been killed, according to statistics cited by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. On Friday the aid group Doctors Without Borders reported that more than 800 people with war wounds have received emergency treatment in projects it runs across Yemen.