LONDON (AlertNet) - Clashes in Yemen have forced up to 15,000 people from their homes since mid-July, with some even sheltering in caves, according to the latest U.N. report on humanitarian needs in the Arab country.
The latest displacement figure pushes the number uprooted by conflict in Yemen to around 390,000.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said as many as 9,500 people fled their homes in Arhab district in the central-western governorate of Sana'a during the second half of July because of heavy fighting between tribal militia and government security forces.
According to the weekly report, released on Wednesday, around 1,000 people headed to towns near Arhab, while others sought refuge in Amran governorate, where they are mostly staying with relatives and in need of support. But some have resorted to hiding out in caves.
"As a safety precaution, some IDPs (internally displaced people) are residing in caves to avoid injury or death due to heavy shelling," said the OCHA report. "Hygiene and living conditions in the caves are very poor and increase the potential for disease outbreak."
Aid workers have started assessing the needs of the newly displaced communities, but precise numbers and information about their living conditions have yet to be verified, OCHA said.
The report also raises the alarm about the increasingly violent south, where more than 90,000 people are displaced, according to government figures.
Three weeks ago, Yemen's army launched a major offensive against militants suspected of ties to al Qaeda, who have seized several towns in southern Abyan province in recent months. Army units, backed by tribal fighters frustrated by the state's inability to drive out militants, have been struggling to retake the provincial coastal capital Zinjibar.
Reports from local tribesmen said between 15 and 40 of their fighters were killed in an air strike last week, just hours after they wrested a strategic point outside the city from the hands of militants. They backed out of the joint operation following the botched strike, but have now rejoined the army.
LACK OF ACCESS
The U.N. report described access to the area as a "challenge", adding it is uncertain how many people have been killed in the southern conflict.
"Due to the volatile security situation and lack of access there is serious concern over unreported human rights abuses," it said. "There is also grave concern about the needs of the remaining population as many government services have been severely disrupted or have ceased altogether."
Only two government hospitals are operational in southern conflict areas, it said, although several private hospitals are also functioning. Abyan is experiencing an outbreak of diarrhoea, with nearly 3,000 cases reported in July alone.
The report noted that the displacement crisis in southern Yemen is likely to be protracted, and longer-term needs such as education must be addressed. Schools are due to open in September, but some are currently housing displaced families.
High commodity prices and fuel shortages have also caused problems for humanitarian activities across the country. And aid workers fear tensions could arise between displaced families and their host communities over assistance.
"The increased numbers of IDPs, rising cost of living and power outages combine with other factors to increase the pressure on many host families in both northern and southern Yemen," the report said.
In the north - mired in a conflict between Shi'ite rebels and the government that has raged on and off since 2004 - disputes with the de facto authorities in the main city of Sa'ada are hampering health and nutrition programmes, the report said. Food aid has been disrupted, for example, because leaders have started to challenge food distribution lists.
The report also warned of a "serious problem" with the recruitment of child soldiers in a remote northern district by Shi’ite rebels to help them fight tribal militia in Al-Jawf. It said child labour and violence towards children have increased, particularly in Sa'ada, where it called for emergency intervention.
Despite rising needs, a U.N.-led appeal for $290 million to fund the aid response across Yemen is only half covered.
The country's humanitarian situation is further complicated by top-level political turmoil. President Ali Abdullah Saleh called on Sunday for dialogue with his opponents during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan to help resolve a crisis over demands for his removal which has paralysed the impoverished country and confounded efforts at mediation.