DJIBOUTI – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he hopes to secure a pause in Yemen's war as he prepared for talks in Saudi Arabia Wednesday, citing increased shortages of food, fuel and medicine that are adding to a crisis that already has neighboring countries bracing for a mass exodus of refugees.
At a news conference in Djibouti, a nearby African nation that already has taken in several thousand people, Kerry said the United States was deeply concerned by the worsening humanitarian conditions in Yemen. He was speaking just a boat trip away from the scene of the fighting, where Iran-backed Houthi rebels were pressing on with ground offensives and Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries were continuing a month-and-a-half long bombing campaign.
Trapped in the middle are Yemeni civilians. Aid groups say they're struggling to reach millions of people in need in what was already the Arabian Peninsula's most impoverished state. With no end to the violence in sight, agencies are doing contingency planning for a prolonged conflict that prompts well over 100,000 Yemenis fleeing for abroad.
"The situation is getting more dire by the day," Kerry told reporters.
Kerry credited the Saudis with trying to ease access for aid organizations and blamed the Houthis for the continued violence.
Nevertheless, he said he believed a break in the fighting could be arranged in the coming days, alluding to telephone conversations he had this week with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and "another country," presumably Iran, who indicated the Houthis might be on board.
Even a temporary halt to the fight "would be welcome news to the world," Kerry said.
But he stressed that any arrangement must entail conditions so that no party to the conflict tries to use the moratorium to seize territory or otherwise gain an advantage, which would threaten to set back the humanitarian cause even further.
Yemen has long suffered from desperate poverty, political dysfunction and al-Qaida's most lethal branch. It has become more unstable in recent months as the Houthis, who are Shiite, seized much of the country and chased Yemen's internationally recognized president into exile.
That prompted a Saudi-led military intervention of Sunni Arab governments. The Saudis also are backing pro-government forces on the ground in Yemen trying to fight back against the Houthis.
The war shows little sign of abating. Rebels fired rockets and mortars into Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, killing at least two civilians, and reportedly captured five soldiers. Meanwhile, hundreds of families fled the southern Yemeni city of Aden after the Houthis advanced into their neighborhoods, firing indiscriminately as they took over surrounding, towering mountains. Saudi officials said "all options are open" as they weigh a response.
To help ease the growing need for food, water and shelter, Kerry announced $68 million in new U.S. aid to Yemen. An additional $2 million will be provided to help Djibouti deal with an influx of Yemeni refugees.
A sleepy coastal nation in the Horn of Africa, Djibouti has become a critical part of U.S. policy in the region.
With U.S. ground forces out of Yemen, Djibouti is a launching pad for drone attacks on al-Qaida and other extremist groups there and is serving as a key transit point for Americans trying to get home.
Kerry thanked Djibouti for its support after meeting with President Ismail Omar Guelleh and Foreign Minister Mahamoud Ali Youssouf. And at a ceremony, Kerry presented passports and travel visas to Americans and their family members planning to fly on to the United States.
A day after becoming the first secretary of state to visit Somalia, Kerry likewise became the first to make an appearance in tiny Djibouti, which encompasses an area the size of New Jersey and has less than 1 million people.
The country has regularly hosted defense secretaries, given that it is the site of America's only base in Africa, Camp Lemmonier, where thousands of U.S. troops, contractors and civilian workers are based as well as aerial drones that fly over Yemen and Somalia.
At the base, Kerry told troops the U.S. would do more to combat the region's bad actors, including Iran, and prevent the proliferation of weapons.