UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. Security Council urged the warring parties in Yemen on Thursday to immediately agree on a cease-fire and keep all ports open for humanitarian aid to confront the threat of famine and the rapid spread of cholera.
A presidential statement read at a formal council meeting urged Houthi Shiite rebels and the internationally recognized government to engage in peace talks "in a flexible and constructive manner without preconditions, and in good faith" to end their nearly three-year civil war.
The British-drafted statement, approved by all 15 council members, stressed the importance of keeping all ports, especially Hodeida, as "a critical lifeline" for humanitarian supplies.
Britain's U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said the statement was the first by the council on Yemen for 15 months and the first to call on the parties to end the violence, resume the political process, and ensure full access for humanitarian aid and workers.
Given the different national views on Yemen, he said, the council's unity shows the level of concern about the civil war, "exacerbated by the humanitarian disaster that is unfolding."
"This is a sign to the parties that they really must get back to a genuine, meaningful political process ... to finish the conflict, and to overcome the divisions of the past — and the only way to do that is through a long-term political settlement," Rycroft said.
Yemen, which is on the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, has been engulfed in civil war since September 2014 when Houthi rebels swept into the capital of Sanaa and overthrew President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi's internationally recognized government.
In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition, backed by the United States, began a campaign against Houthi forces allied with ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh in support of Hadi's government. Since then, the Iranian-backed Houthis have been dislodged from most of the south, but remain in control of Sanaa and much of the north.
The Security Council urged both sides "to engage constructively" on the U.N. special envoy's latest proposals to increase shipments through Red Sea ports and resume government salary payments.
The council gave its support to "the tireless efforts" by U.N. envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed to bring the parties to the negotiating table, and strongly condemned the attack on his convoy during a recent visit to Sanaa. Houthi leaders refused to meet with Cheikh Ahmed on that trip and earlier this month they rejected him as a peace negotiator, calling him biased.
The Security Council also backed Cheikh Ahmed's proposal to continue the flow of commercial and humanitarian supplies through Hodeida, where there has been a threat of fighting, and end the diversion of customs revenues and taxes so that money could be used to pay government salaries and preserve essential government services in all areas of the country.
"These proposals would act as a confidence-building mechanism between the parties, with a view to a durable cessation of hostilities as a step towards the resumption of peace talks under U.N. leadership," the council said.
The statement was approved hours after the U.N. humanitarian chief in Yemen, Jamie McGoldrick, warned that the cholera outbreak in the country is depleting aid resources to the point they won't be able to provide food to people threatened by famine through the summer.
He said 923 people have died of cholera and there are now 124,002 suspected cases — and that figure could double by September.
The Security Council said the cholera outbreak was the latest indicator "of the gravity of the humanitarian crisis" in the Arab world's poorest nation, and the severe strain the conflict has placed on the country's institutions.
The Security Council also called on all Yemenis to combine efforts to counter the threat from violent extremist groups including Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State.