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UN accuses Yemen rebels of blocking aid to Taiz

UN official calls Houthi move 'unacceptable' as 200,000 people in Taiz are urgently in need of supplies
Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi (2L) visits the al-Anad military airbase, in the southern Lahj governorate some 50 kilometres north of the Red Sea port of Aden on 24 November 2015

The UN aid chief on Tuesday accused Yemen's Houthi rebels of blocking and diverting deliveries of aid to the country's third city of Taiz where some 200,000 people are living under siege.

Government forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition have been battling since September to push the Zaidi Shia rebels out of Taiz as part of their campaign to recapture the capital Sanaa farther north.

"Houthis and popular committees are blocking supply routes and continue to obstruct the delivery of urgently needed humanitarian aid and supplies into Taiz city," said Stephen O'Brien, the under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs.

Trucks carrying aid are blocked at checkpoints and "only very limited assistance has been allowed in," he added in a statement.

O'Brien said it was "unacceptable" that some of the aid destined for the city's needy was being diverted away from those people.

Some 200,000 people are in need of drinking water, food, medical treatment and other life-saving assistance in Taiz, a "deeply concerned" O'Brien said.

On Monday, Houthis blew up several bridges in the mountainous southwestern Taiz province to hamper the advance of pro-government forces, military sources said.

The Houthi rebels "blew up several bridges leading to Rahida to prevent the advance" of loyalist forces, said one of the sources in a reference to the province's second-largest city.

Military officials said this week that landmines planted by the rebels have already been hampering the progress of government forces and had caused casualties. 

Loyalist forces are now stationed 12 kilometres away from Rahida after they regained several positions in clashes that lasted until early Tuesday and left five rebels and two pro-government fighters dead, according to the military sources.

Elsewhere, the rebels said they repelled a loyalist advance in Dhubab region on the Red Sea, killing 20 and wounding another 20, a toll that could not be independently confirmed.

In the neighbouring Lahj province, farther south, Hadi visited al-Anad airbase, where Yemeni and coalition commanders are deployed to supervise the Taiz offensive, a presidency source said.

"The visit is to oversee the military preparations to liberate Taiz," the source told AFP.

Hadi returned from Saudi Arabia on 18 November, two days after the offensive to retake Taiz began.

Government forces backed by air and ground support from a Saudi-led coalition launched an all-out offensive last week to push the rebels out of Taiz and break the siege of loyalists in its provincial capital.

Taiz is seen as crucial for the recapture of other central provinces and for opening the way to the rebel-controlled capital Sanaa farther north.

It is also important for securing the south, where loyalists have retaken five provinces since July, including Aden, seat of the provisional government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.

A key member of the coalition, the United Arab Emirates, said Tuesday that one of its soldiers in Yemen died of his injuries from a 4 September missile attack in Marib, east of the capital Sanaa.

His death in Germany, where he was hospitalised, raised to 64 the number of Emirati soldiers killed in the attack.

The United Nations says a total of more than 5,700 people have been killed in Yemen since the Saudi-led intervention began in March, nearly half of them civilians.

Yemen descended into chaos when the Saudi-led coalition launched an air campaign in March to push back the advance by the Houthi rebels.

Some 82 percent of the population - 21 million people - are in urgent need of aid.

Saudi Arabia has been heavily criticised by human rights groups for "indiscriminate" air strikes that kill civilians with impunity.

“The obligation of any warring party is to conduct a serious investigation” into reports of civilian deaths, said Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa deputy director.

“The Saudis have simply not done that,” Foreign Policy quoted Stork as saying on Monday.

UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed has been holding talks for weeks with all sides to trying to launch peace negotiations, but no date has yet been set.

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