UNITED NATIONS -- The U.N. envoy for Yemen warned Tuesday that fragmentation of the war-torn Arab nation "is becoming a stronger and more pressing threat," making peace efforts that have been frustratingly slow more urgent than ever.
Martin Griffiths told the Security Council that the world cannot underestimate the risks that recent military action in southern Aden and Abyan provinces pose for the future of the country.
"There is no time to lose," Griffiths warned. "The stakes are becoming too high for the future of Yemen, the Yemeni people and the wider region."
The conflict in Yemen began with the 2014 takeover of the capital, Sanaa, by Iran-backed Houthi Shiite rebels who control much of the country's north. A Saudi-led coalition that includes the United Arab Emirates allied with Yemen's internationally recognized government led by Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has been fighting the Houthis since 2015.
Fighting in Aden in the south began earlier this month when a separatist militia backed by the UAE called for the overthrow of the Hadi government, threatening a rift in the coalition. The clashes between ostensible allies added another layer to the country's complex civil war.
Griffiths said he hoped that key Yemeni parties everywhere "take events in Aden as a clear sign that the current conflict must be brought to an end swiftly and peacefully, and in a manner which addresses the needs of Yemenis across the country."
He told the council that full implementation of a December agreement on the opening and redeployment of government and Houthi forces from the key port of Hodeida in the north "cannot be a precondition for achieving peace in all of Yemen."
Speaking by video from Amman, Jordan, the U.N. envoy said he has talked with numerous groups from across Yemen, including the south, and has "long advocated for their inclusion in the peace process."
In the latest fighting, clashes between a Yemeni separatist militia, backed by the United Arab Emirates, and forces loyal to the Saudi-backed Hadi government killed at least three civilians and wounded nine in Abyan province on Tuesday, security officials and local residents said.
Griffiths welcomed efforts by Saudi Arabia to convene a dialogue in Jeddah to discuss the situation in the south.
"It is essential that the meeting takes place in the very near future to prevent a further deterioration and to ensure the continuity of governance, security and basic service provision in Aden and other relevant areas under the exclusive authority of the state," he said.
Griffiths also pointed to the danger of a resurgence of activities by violent extremist groups, noting that during the past month there have been attacks by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State in Aden, Abyan and Al-Bayda provinces.
During the past month, Griffiths said government and Houthi officials continued to assure him of "their strong desire for a political solution" to the conflict and the need to move forward urgently — but he said "this sense of urgency is in painful contrast to our efforts so far to resolve the conflict."
On a positive note, he said eight months after the Stockholm agreement on Hodeida, "there have been no major military operations in Hodeida city, and there has been a sustained reduction in violence."
Griffiths said he is also "very encouraged" at the possibility of "an enhanced cease-fire mechanism," and is waiting for responses by Aug. 25 to his proposal on an initial redeployment of forces from Hodeida.
But he expressed frustration that progress on Hodeida has not been quicker and that there has been no progress on other parts of the Stockholm agreement including establishing a coordinating committee in Taiz and the exchange of prisoners and detainees.
The fighting in the Arab world's poorest country has killed thousands of civilians, left millions suffering from food and medical care shortages and pushed the country to the brink of famine.
U.N. deputy humanitarian chief Ursula Mueller told the council that 12 million Yemenis are being assisted every month, "but much of this is about to stop" because only 34 percent of the U.N.'s $4.2 billion appeal for 2019 has been funded.
At this time last year, she said, 65 percent of the appeal was funded including generous contributions from Yemen's neighbors Saudi Arabia and the UAE. But this year she said they have so far paid "only a modest share of what they promised," which was $750 million apiece.
The U.N. humanitarian office said the UAE has so far contributed $160 million and Saudi Arabia $127 million.
Mueller said "essential programs are now closing down," including vaccination campaigns.