DUBAIDUBAI (Reuters) - A U.N. grain store that symbolised aid agencies' struggle to navigate the front lines of Yemen's war has finally been emptied and distributed to a starving population almost two years after fighting cut access, the U.N. food agency said on Monday.
The Red Sea Mills, a milling facility rented by the World Food Programme (WFP) as part of an aid operation feeding 13 million people a month, had become a focal point of a frozen conflict in the strategic port of Hodeidah.
Located in a complicated web of frontlines between forces loyal to Yemen's internationally recognised government and those of the Iran-aligned Houthi group, the grain store became inaccessible in September 2018 and suffered shelling damage.
Enough to feed nearly four million people, the grain risked rotting in the humid climate. It took a year of negotiations and risky cross-frontline operations to regain access and resume milling and distribution in September last year.
Aid agencies have repeatedly complained that the combatants in the five-year-old conflict across Yemen have restricted access to needy populations and aid supplies.
The flour delivery comes as fears of famine in Yemen are resurfacing, the United Nations has said.
Yemen is seen as the world's worst humanitarian crisis where 80% of the population relies on humanitarian aid. A recent U.N. report saw Yemen returning to "alarming" levels of food insecurity.
Coronavirus restrictions, reduced remittances, locusts, floods and significant underfunding of this year's aid response have compounded an already dire hunger situation.
The WFP in April halved food aid to alternate months in Houthi-controlled north Yemen and says it needs $737 million to keep services running to December.
Coronavirus restrictions are affecting aid operations. The WFP has had to charter extra vessels to keep food flowing as ships must observe a 14-day quarantine before docking in Yemen, the WFP spokesperson said.
Yemen has been mired in conflict since a Saudi-led coalition intervened in March 2015 to restore the government ousted from power in the capital Sanaa by Houthi forces. The Houthis say they are fighting a corrupt system.
The U.N. has been holding virtual talks between the warring parties to agree a permanent ceasefire and confidence-building steps to restart peace negotiations last held in December 2018.
U.N.-mediated talks between warring parties in Hodeidah have so far failed to achieve a full troop withdrawal and ceasefire.
(Writing by Lisa Barrington, Editing by William Maclean)