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UN refugee agency 'cautiously optimistic' over Yemen ceasefire

16 February 2010 – The United Nations refugee agency today said that it is encouraged by the first – and so far holding – ceasefire between Government forces and rebels in northern Yemen, where 250,000 civilians have been uprooted since clashes erupted in the country in 2004.

International concern has mounted about the situation in Yemen, where Government troops have been fighting Al Houthi rebels in the northwest and extremist groups such as Al-Qaida are considered to be active. The country is one of the poorest in its region and also faces a periodic influx of refugees from across the seas in the Horn of Africa.

The number of people forced to flee their homes since fighting broke out six years ago in the nation’s north has more than doubled since just last August, and at least 170,000 refugees are currently sheltering in the country.

The ceasefire came into effect on 11 February, and its first implementation phase has begun, Melissa Fleming, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said today.

“As part of the UN team in Yemen, UNHCR is renewing its call for access to Sa’ada province, enabling aid agencies to deliver much-needed hep to the civilian population,” she said, stressing that the uprooted and those trapped by fighting are in need of “urgent and massive support.”

Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are seeing their resources dwindle quickly, Ms. Fleming noted. “People who fled from Sa’ada tell us that many are being forced to sell their cherished personal belongings to secure basic needs.”

Late last week, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon voiced hope in a statement that “the ceasefire will hold and that it will provide an opportunity to fully resolve this conflict.”

With displaced people expressing their wish to return to their homes in northern Yemen after news of the ceasefire broke, UNHCR is preparing for a potential shift in its operations and is planning for the voluntary and safe return of IDPs, provided the security conditions allow for it.

As a first step, the agency said a joint Government-UN mission to Sa’ada province would be helpful to assess the situation and identify immediate humanitarian needs.

“We are especially concerned about the safety of those IDPs who may decide to return on their own as parts of Sa’ada province where fighting took place remain littered with mines and unexploded ordnance,” Ms. Fleming said.

She also cautioned that without an influx of funding, UNHCR might be forced to scale down or even suspend its operations in Yemen. To date, the agency has received less than 3 per cent of the nearly $40 million it has asked for out of the 2010 UN consolidated appeal for the country.

“This is an alarmingly weak donor response,” the spokesperson emphasized. “Displaced Yemenis and refugees in Yemen are in urgent need of international assistance and we especially hope that the countries in the region will act in their usual spirit of solidarity.”

Late last month, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe told the High-Level Meeting on Yemen, held in London, that the world is ready to assist the impoverished Arab nation make progress on the humanitarian, developmental and economic fronts.

“The many challenges faced by Yemen can only be addressed in a systemic and comprehensive way,” Mr. Pascoe said, stressing that the Government and its people must be at the centre of this approach.

“But it is clear that the international community will need to support the Government’s efforts to tackle the underlying causes of the country’s difficulties. This support is fundamental in sustaining the country’s long-term stability and security, countering the terrorist threat, boosting its economy, meeting its development needs and fighting poverty.”

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