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FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters before departing the White House for New York in Washington, U.S., December 2, 2017. REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan(reuters_tickers)
By Steve Holland and Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump called for Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to immediately allow humanitarian aid to reach the Yemeni people, suggesting Washington had run out patience with a Saudi-led blockade that has been condemned by relief organizations.
The Saudi-led military coalition fighting the Iran-aligned armed Houthi movement in Yemen's civil war started a blockade of ports a month ago after Saudi Arabia intercepted a missile fired towards its capital Riyadh from Yemen.
Although the blockade later eased and showed signs of breaking on Wednesday, Yemen's situation remained dire. About 8 million people are on the brink of famine with outbreaks of cholera and diphtheria.
"I have directed officials in my administration to call the leadership of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to request that they completely allow food, fuel, water and medicine to reach the Yemeni people who desperately need it," Trump said in a statement, without elaborating.
"This must be done for humanitarian reasons immediately," Trump said.
The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) said the first food and fuel had arrived in Hodeidah and Saleef ports, but supplies were at a trickle compared to what was needed, since Yemen's population of 27 million was almost entirely reliant on imports for food, fuel and medicine.
Oxfam International applauded Trump's statement, calling it "long overdue but hugely important." Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, who has called for restrictions on U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, said he expected the Kingdom to heed Trump's call.
Trump's brief, one-paragraph statement is one of the clearest signs of U.S. concern over aspects of Saudi Arabia's foreign policy. Saudi Arabia has also split with Trump over his decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Publicly, Trump, his top aides and senior Saudi officials have hailed what they say is a major improvement in U.S.-Saudi ties compared with relations under former President Barack Obama, who upset the Saudis by sealing a nuclear deal with their arch-foe Iran.
Even as ties improve, however, U.S. diplomats and intelligence analysts privately express anxiety over some of the more hawkish actions by Saudi Arabia's crown prince, especially towards Yemen and Lebanon, as Saudi Arabia seeks to contain Iranian influence.
In turn, Saudi Arabia has been unusually public about its concerns over U.S. policy on Jerusalem.
King Salman told Trump ahead of his Jerusalem announcement on Wednesday that any decision on the status of Jerusalem before a permanent peace settlement was reached would "harm peace talks and increase tensions in the area," according to Saudi state-owned media.
A White House official said Trump's statement on aid to Yemen did not represent retaliation for the Saudi position on Jerusalem.
"It has to do with the fact that there is a serious humanitarian issue in Yemen and the Saudis should and can do more," the official said.
The fuel shortages caused by the blockade have meant that areas hardest hit by war, malnutrition and cholera lack functioning hospital generators, cooking fuel and water pumps. It also makes it harder to move food and medical aid around the country.
The Saudi-led military coalition stepped up air strikes on Yemen's Houthis on Wednesday as the armed movement tightened its grip on Sanaa a day after the son of slain former president Ali Abdullah Saleh vowed revenge for his father's death.
Saleh, who was killed in an attack on his convoy, plunged Yemen deeper into turmoil last week by switching allegiance after years helping the Houthis win control of much of northern Yemen, including the capital.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Tuesday that the killing of Saleh would likely worsen an already dire humanitarian situation in the country in the short term.
"This is where we've all got to roll up our sleeves and figure out what you're going to do about medicine and food and clean water, cholera," Mattis said.
(Reporting by Steve Holland and Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Katanga Johnson; Editing by Grant McCool and James Dalgleish)