The United Nations said Wednesday that two of its staff members have been held incommunicado for more than a week by Houthi rebels in Yemen, and it called for their immediate release.
“The secretary-general is deeply concerned about the arrests and detention of two U.N. staff members in Sanaa by the Houthis earlier this month,” Antonio Guterres’ spokesman told reporters.
“We call for their immediate release,” Stephane Dujarric said.
The two male employees were separately detained on November 5 and November 7. One works in human rights and the other for UNESCO. Dujarric said no charges have been filed against them, nor has the U.N. received any explanation for their arrests.
The spokesman said that ahead of a U.N. Security Council meeting last Thursday on Yemen, the U.N. had received assurances from the Houthis that the staffers would be released, and those assurances were conveyed to the Security Council.
“However, as of today, the staff members remain in detention, in breach of U.N. privileges and immunities and in direct contravention to the assurances we received last week,” Dujarric said.
On November 10, the Security Council designated three senior Houthi military leaders for international sanctions, including an asset freeze and travel ban.
This is the second time this month that U.N. staff members have been detained in a country where they are working. Earlier this month, the Ethiopian government arrested more than 20 U.N. national staff members and 70 subcontractor truck drivers. About half of each group has since been released.
The United States has had similar issues in Yemen. Some locally hired staff members at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa have been detained after the embassy was breached by the Houthis.
Washington’s special envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, is in the region and the State Department said in a statement Tuesday that he would discuss these developments with the Houthis, who are the de facto authorities in Sanaa.
The Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have been fighting with the Saudi-backed government of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi for seven years. The war has pushed the region’s poorest country to the brink.
More than 20 million Yemenis, in a population of around 30 million, need humanitarian assistance. The World Food Program says 16 million of them are “marching towards starvation” because of a combination of conflict and a crippling economic crisis.