(Reuters) – At least five merchant vessels carrying food are stuck off Yemen, shipping data showed on Wednesday, as warships from a Saudi-led coalition search them for weapons bound for Iran-allied Houthi rebel forces, with delays adding to a humanitarian crisis.
Yemen imports more than 90 percent of its food, including most of its wheat and all its rice, to feed a population of 25 million.
Much of its needs had been serviced by foreign ships, although shipping lines have now reduced or stopped port calls.
Ship tracking data showed at least five cargo ships were anchored off Yemen unable to enter Yemeni waters.
“Disruption of navigation in Yemen’s territorial waters will adversely affect food security,” U.N. humanitarian agency OCHA said. “Even before the current escalation in conflict, almost half of all people in Yemen were short of food.”
Saudi Arabia and Arab allies have launched air strikes against Houthi rebels, who have taken most of the country and forced President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee to Riyadh.
The coalition has deployed naval vessels to intercept ships carrying arms to the rebels, although merchant ships are meant to have free passage once they are inspected. Nonetheless, this has already meant delays for food deliveries by sea.
“It is more difficult now to find ship owners willing to provide vessels and you face your shipment being held up for an unknown amount of time by warships before even bringing it into Yemen,” one international food trader said.
A cargo vessel, the Lycavitos, carrying 47,250 tonnes of wheat, waited outside Yemeni waters for nearly a week before Egypt’s navy on Tuesday cleared it to sail to al-Saleef port, the ship owner’s agent said.
“Even after clearance was given, as the vessel approached Yemeni waters it was approached by another coalition warship asking what it was doing in the area before the captain clarified it had clearance to enter,” Helikon Shipping Enterprises Ltd said.
“We now expect another six to seven days berthing delay prior to discharge commencing at Saleef. Owners will be monitoring daily the Saleef port situation regarding safety and security and can invoke rights under the charter party to refuse entry to Saleef if the port becomes unsafe.”