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Yemen crisis

Randa, a Yemeni baby suffering from severe malnutrition, is held by her father on December 21, 2021 at a camp for displaced people who fled fighting between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed government in the Abs district of the northwestern Hajjah province. (Photo: Essa Ahmed/AFP via Getty Images)

AOC Leads Demand for Biden to Work on Ending Saudi Blockade of Crucial Yemen Airport

"The United States must make clear that this cruel and senseless blockade is causing devastating harm to millions of innocent Yemenis and is harmful to diplomacy and the peace process."

Brett Wilkins

Amid new airstrikes on Yemen's Sanaa International Airport by the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition and an imminent reduction in critical food assistance to the war-torn nation, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers have joined global humanitarian organizations in urging the immediate reopening of the vital travel, trade, and aid hub.

"The Biden administration should leverage all possible influence to pressure the Saudi-led coalition to end its blockade of Sanaa International Airport."

In a December 16 letter to U.S. President Joe Biden made public Wednesday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) state that "restrictions on Yemen's ports of entry are a form of collective punishment in violation of international and U.S. law and such practices must be decoupled from ongoing negotiations and brought to an immediate end."

The lawmakers note that the closure of Sanaa International Airport—which, like the eponymous Yemeni capital, is controlled by the Houthi rebels fighting the coalition—"has exacerbated the ongoing crisis in Yemen and had a devastating impact on millions of innocent Yemenis."

"Reopening the airport will be vital to ensuring a resolution to the conflict, and to ensure desperately needed humanitarian aid is able to enter the country and reach those who need it," they write.

On Wednesday, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) announced that it would soon be forced to cut food aid to 13 million Yemenis due to a funding shortfall.

"The Yemeni people are now more vulnerable than ever, reeling from relentless conflict and the deepening economic crisis that has pushed millions into destitution," said Corinne Fleischer, WFP's regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, in a statement. "WFP food stocks in Yemen are running dangerously low at a time when budgets for humanitarian crises around the world are stretched to the limit."

"Every time we reduce the amount of food, we know that more people who are already hungry and food insecure will join the ranks of the millions who are starving," Fleischer added. "But desperate times call for desperate measures and we have to stretch our limited resources and prioritize, focusing on people who are in the most critical state."

Exacerbating the crisis, BBC reports that Saudi-led warplanes bombed six targets at the airport Monday, with coalition military leaders claiming to target facilities related to the Houthis' unmanned aerial drone attacks against Saudi Arabia. Such bombings, the U.S. lawmakers note, render the airport "unsafe for both commercial and humanitarian use."

The legislators' letter aligns with calls by international humanitarian aid workers to lift the Saudi-led blockade on the airport.

"It is vitally important that the airport is re-opened as quickly as possible, and that the two sides commit to keeping the airport out of the conflict in the future," Ahmed Mahat, the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) head of mission in Yemen, told Middle East Eye this week.

"Each time that the airport is closed, it has a real impact on MSF and other humanitarian actors' ability to run our operations... causing consequences for many Yemenis relying on humanitarian aid," he added.

The U.S. letter notes the grim realities of life and death in Yemen, home of the "world's worst humanitarian crisis": Nearly 80% of the population requires urgent humanitarian assistance; 16.2 million—including 400,000 children under age five—are at risk of starvation; millions of people have been displaced; and outbreaks of cholera and Covid-19 are ravaging a society lacking adequate critical healthcare and sanitation infrastructure and services.

"The United Nations Development Program predicts that if unabated, the war in Yemen will lead to 377,000 deaths by the end of this year—nearly 60% of those due to indirect causes such as disruptions in access to food, clean water, and adequate healthcare," the lawmakers warn.

The letter continues:

The closure of the airport has severely impacted access to food and medical services for millions of Yemenis. Yemenis in need are unable to receive the vital medicines they desperately need, imperiling millions. It has also greatly limited the capacity of healthcare facilities in the north of the country... as the flow of medical supplies through the airport has all but stopped.

Combined with restrictions on fuel through Yemen's Hodeidah Port, prices of many lifesaving medicines have doubled, putting critical medical care treatments out of reach for millions of innocent Yemenis. The closure also blocks vital medical travel for tens of thousands of critically ill Yemeni civilians. Tragically, many Yemenis with chronic health issues, such as cancer, have needlessly suffered and died waiting for potentially lifesaving medical evacuations and medicine.

The lawmakers urge the Biden administration to "take more forceful action to end the suffering of more than 24 million Yemenis."

"The announcement to the end of offensive support in Yemen was a good first step to ending the war," they write, adding that "the United States must make clear that this cruel and senseless blockade is causing devastating harm to millions of innocent Yemenis and is harmful to diplomacy and the peace process."

"The Biden administration should leverage all possible influence to pressure the Saudi-led coalition to end its blockade of Sanaa International Airport," the letter stresses, "and to allow for the unrestricted flow of humanitarian aid through the airport."

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