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United Nations Envoy Pushes For Diplomacy In War-Torn Yemen


A top U.N. aid official says Yemen is close to famine, calling it a man-made catastrophe that's a result of a devastating war there. An envoy from the U.N. has been struggling to get the warring parties to understand that they're in a military quagmire, and the only way to prevent a famine is to negotiate peace. Now the U.S. has some leverage since it's backing one side in the war, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The World Food Programme's Muhannad Hadi is just back from Yemen. And he offered a grim picture of the humanitarian situation there as he spoke to the U.N. Security Council today.


MUHANNAD HADI: The state of Yemen is broken. That's what the people told me last week, the Yemenis themselves. They feel that they are dying in silence. And they feel that they have been forgotten by the entire world.

KELEMEN: Hadi says 1.5 million children in Yemen are suffering from severe malnutrition. And he says he was shocked by what he saw.


HADI: Overcome with emotions. I really did not know who to sympathize with more - a malnourished kid sitting on a bed too tired to seek even to cry, or a mother sitting next to him, too hungry, too tired even to support her child.

KELEMEN: The U.N.'s top humanitarian official, Stephen O'Brien, says he's seen 8-year-old children in Yemen who are so malnourished they look like toddlers. O'Brien offered these words of warning as he spoke by phone to the Security Council.


STEPHEN O'BRIEN: Yemen is one step away from famine.

KELEMEN: The war pits a Saudi-led coalition against Houthi rebels backed by Iran. Those rebels overthrew Yemen's president, who now lives in exile in Saudi Arabia. The U.S. ambassador, Samantha Power, was among those today pushing all sides to work with the U.N. envoy on a peace plan. But the U.S. has also been backing the Saudi airstrikes that have killed many civilians, as former ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine points out.


BARBARA BODINE: We have people in the Saudi air force headquarters. I believe them when they say they're not providing actual targeting. But they have done, for example, do not hit lists, which the Saudis don't seem to be reading very closely.

KELEMEN: She told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that the U.S. got involved to try to ease Saudi concerns about a nuclear deal with Iran.


BODINE: This is how we got into this. We need the Saudis for the Iran deal. Nobody anticipated this would last 18 months. No one anticipated the level of carnage.

KELEMEN: After a deadly airstrike on a funeral procession, the Obama administration warned Saudi Arabia it is not giving Riyadh a blank check. But Bodine says the U.S. should actually scale back its support if it really wants the Saudis to change course.


BODINE: Now we are complicit in a fragile state being turned into a Shattered State.

KELEMEN: She says the Saudis seem to be in a quagmire. The Houthis are still firing rockets into Saudi Arabia. And some analysts say the rebels are even more dependent now on Iran.

The U.N. envoy on Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, says this is a war no one will win. And Yemenis are hostage to the, quote, "personal and reckless decisions of the warring parties."


ISMAIL OULD CHEIKH AHMED: The people of Yemen can no longer wait because the situation is becoming disastrous.

KELEMEN: Both sides are rejecting his so-called roadmap to peace. But the envoy isn't planning on rewriting it. He's heading back to the region, hoping to persuade everyone to compromise. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.