CAIRO -- The United Nations food agency demanded on Friday that the Houthi rebels put an "immediate end" to food diversion and hold accountable those responsible for food theft, but said it not clear how much of their aid is actually reaching Yemenis.
Meanwhile, the Saudi Ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed bin Saeed Al-Jaber, told The Associated Press that at least 60 percent of the funds sent to the U.N. by members of the Saudi-led coalition battling the Houthis have not yet been spent on their intended purpose. Obstacles imposed by the Houthis on aid agencies in northern Yemen, such as blocking access to on-the-ground medical programs, have resulted in the funds remaining held up, he alleged.
The latest remarks come shortly after an investigation by the AP found that across Yemen, factions and militias on both sides of the conflict have blocked food aid from reaching groups suspected of disloyalty, diverting it instead to front-line combat units or selling it for a profit on the black market.
"This is an issue that affects not just WFP but all aid agencies working in Yemen and indeed in war zones everywhere," said Herve Verhoosel, spokesman for the World Food Program, on Friday in Geneva. "No-one can say for certain how widespread this problem is," he added.
"The de facto authorities in Sana'a have a responsibility to take action against those involved in stealing from the beneficiaries and in trading of food aid," he said, adding that the WFP has repeatedly demanded that the Houthis introduce biometric registration to bring an end to fraud and aid losses.
He added that there will be no major shift from food baskets to cash transfers for beneficiaries — a demand by the Houthis— until there are clear monitoring and verification methods in place, along with biometric registration.
"Given the risk of corruption, we have made it clear to the de facto authorities that we will not introduce cash-based transfers unless we are authorized to implement a biometric identification system that uses personal data including iris scans and ten-finger prints to ensure that only registered beneficiaries are able to claim their cash or food rations," he said.
The WFP on Monday threatened to suspend some aid shipments to Yemen if the rebels don't investigate and stop theft and fraud in food distribution, warning that the suspension would affect some 3 million people. It gave an ultimatum of 10 days for Houthis to take action.
The Houthis, in turn, accused the WFP of politicizing the aid deliveries and accused the agency of sending expired food to Yemen. Relief workers expressed fears of retaliatory measures by the Houthis, either by holding aid trucks for long periods, or revoking visas for international aid workers as they have repeatedly done in the past.
The war in Yemen began in 2014 when the Houthi rebels occupied the capital and moved south, forcing the internationally-recognized government to flee and seek support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. The Saudi-led coalition has imposed air, land, and sea embargoes, and its anti-Houthi air campaign has caused thousands of civilian casualties.
The Saudis, who are the largest donor to the U.N. humanitarian response plan, said that they have known about the aid diversions for a long time and are requesting that the U.N. reshape its aid schemes to support development projects and not just emergencies.
Al-Jaber told the AP on Friday that the U.N. has remained silent over the Houthi's violations and that the world body has only been able to spend 40 percent of the funds it has received due to the obstacles imposed on it by Houthis.