SANAA — Yemen needs urgent international aid to head off a humanitarian crisis, a UN mission visiting the impoverished country said on Wednesday, warning of "collective punishment" against civilians.
"We call on the international community to quickly provide humanitarian aid to Yemen during this difficult time," said a statement at the end of a nine-day visit.
"Yemen is facing a humanitarian crisis due to intentional actions plus a failure in taking action," it said.
"We remind everyone, whether government or non-government parties, that civilians should not fall as victims of collective punishment because of the power struggle" gripping the country, it said.
"Officials must realise that with such actions, they are violating international laws and will thus be held accountable after Yemen passes this phase. We urge them to stop these acts."
The poorest country in the Middle East has been rocked by deadly protests since late January demanding President Ali Abdullah Saleh's ouster, and security forces have clamped down heavily on them.
The unrest has led to shortages in electricity, water, food and fuel, amid charges that elite Republican Guard troops led by Saleh's son Ahmed are preventing supplies from entering Sanaa.
"The absence of security, the spread of outlaws, obstacles preventing free movement, and the many outcomes of oil and power shortages have greatly influenced the economy and means of transporting food from cities to countryside," the statement said.
"It has also affected education and medical services ... and has caused inflation as well as an increase in unemployment. It has also created an economy which depends on the black market," it said.
Last month, the Oxfam aid agency said several months of unrest and anti-regime protests had exacerbated the humanitarian situation in Yemen, where at least seven million people go hungry each day.
The Common Forum, a parliamentary opposition alliance, has repeatedly held the regime of Saleh, hospitalised in Saudi Arabia from wounds sustained in a June 3 bomb attack, responsible for the shortages.
It has also accused the regime of carrying out "collective punishment" against the people.
The UN mission called for an end to violence, urging Yemen authorities to allow peaceful protests to continue.
"Yemenis, men and women of all ages, have bravely organised themselves across the country to demand their rights peacefully despite the significant availability of arms in the country," said the statement.
Yemen has an estimated 60 million firearms in private hands, roughly three for every citizen.
"Such gatherings must be allowed to continue without any dangers or threats. On the other hand, the excessive use of force, including live rounds, by security forces and the involvement of armed groups will push the demonstrations towards further radicalism," it added.
Anti-Saleh protesters have camped in cities across the country since February, and at least 200 people have been killed by Saleh loyalists.
The human rights office said more than 50 people were killed in Taez, Yemen's second-largest city in a crackdown on protesters over several days in late May.
Then in early June, a tribal chief said armed dissidents had seized control of most of Taez, following clashes with Saleh troops.
"I consider Taez to have fallen under the control" of the dissidents, Sheikh Hammoud Saeed al-Mikhlafi, the head of the tribal council in Taez, told AFP by telephone.
He said tribal gunmen have been deployed in the city to "protect the peaceful (anti-regime) demonstrators" after they faced a "genocide" last week.
The UN statement said "the resort to using arms has led to more violence and counter violence, pushing all sides to blame one another other."
"The mission realises that the possession of all kinds of arms is common in Yemen but one thing is for sure -- gatherings and protests had begun peacefully and the use of arms wasn't a phenomenon," it added.
The mission, sent by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, landed in Sanaa on June 28, nearly a week after the UN Security Council expressed "grave concern" over the violence in Yemen.
Team members held talks with regime and opposition officials as well as representatives of civil society.