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UN Yemen aid ship stuck in Saudi over 'undeclared' cargo

Saudi General Brigadier al-Assiri said that the ship carried communication devices similar to what the rebel Houthi militia uses
A UN aid ship docked in Yemen's devastated port city of Aden last July (World Food Programme/AFP)

A UN-chartered ship carrying food for Yemen was held in a Saudi port on Wednesday after the Riyadh-led coalition fighting the Houthi rebels said it found undeclared communications equipment aboard.

The MV Mainport Cedar was travelling from Djibouti to an approved stop at Yemen's Red Sea port of Hodeida when it "was diverted by coalition forces" to Jazan in southwest Saudi Arabia on 11 February, the UN World Food Programme said.

The vessel was carrying four declared containers of humanitarian aid, but Saudi inspectors also found "military communications equipment" elsewhere in the ship, coalition spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed al-Assiri told AFP.

"There is some equipment that wasn't declared," he said, adding the satellite dishes, solar power units and "crypto systems" are the type of gear used by Yemen's Houthi rebels.

"It sustains the militias in their combat,” he continued. “Why did they not declare it? We ask them [UN] please 'review your procedures, review your personnel' to make sure this does not happen again."

However, the World Food Programme said that the communications equipment referred to by Saudi Arabia actually belongs to the UN.

"WFP has been asked by the coalition forces to resubmit the paperwork regarding the humanitarian IT equipment," Abeer Etefa, senior spokesman for the WFP said.

The Saudi-led coalition has been battling the Houthi rebels and their allies since last March.

It enforces an arms embargo against the rebels under a UN Security Council Resolution passed in April.

"Now we are working with the United Nations programmes to find out what is the malfunction of the procedure and to fix it, and to make sure that it doesn't happen again," Assiri said.

He added that some of the aid was medical equipment from the Netherlands, and other containers had food from Iran but "we don't know" where the communication equipment came from.

"WFP is still in communication with the coalition forces regarding the circumstances of the ship's diversion to Jazan port," Etefa told AFP from Cairo.

"On behalf of the Yemen humanitarian community, the vessel was transporting commodities including canned tuna, medical supplies for delivery to Hodeida Port and United Nations emergency telecommunications cluster IT equipment for delivery to the Port of Aden."

The Saudi-led military coalition's maritime blockade, air strikes and ground troops support Yemen's government against the rebels who overran the capital Sanaa in September 2014 and then expanded elsewhere in Yemen.

More than 6,100 people have been killed in the conflict since March, about half of them civilians, according to the UN.

The UN's aid chief, Stephen O'Brien, told the Security Council on Tuesday that the Yemen conflict is "exacting a terrible humanitarian toll" that includes at least 7.6 million people severely short of food.