DUBAI (Reuters) - The United Nations regained access to donated grain stored in the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah on Sunday, and began the task of salvaging food that could stave off starvation for millions of citizens before it rots.
Hodeidah, which has become the focus of a four-year war between Saudi-backed government forces and the Iran-aligned Houthis, is the entry point for most of Yemen's humanitarian aid and commercial imports.
But World Food Programme (WFP) grain stores there have been cut off for eight months, putting 51,000 tonnes of wheat at risk of rotting. The stores came under the control of government forces after fierce battles last year but a major frontline is only a few blocks away.
The war has killed tens of thousands and put Yemen on the brink of famine.
A WFP technical team arrived in the eastern outskirts of Hodeidah on Sunday to begin cleaning and servicing equipment in preparation for milling grain, a WFP spokesman told Reuters.
Sources familiar with the matter said the WFP-led team travelled from the government-held southern port city of Aden along the western coast, avoiding Houthi-controlled areas after the group denied them access from the north, which it controls.
Houthi officials did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
The Houthis and the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi agreed in December to a U.N.-sponsored truce and troop withdrawal from Hodeidah. That deal has largely held but violence has escalated in some other parts of the country.
WFP spokesman Herve Verhoosel said its priority was to begin cleaning and servicing milling machinery and fumigating the wheat.
The U.N. expects that process to take several weeks before starting to mill it into flour and distributing it to the Yemeni communities most in need.
An assessment carried out in February, when the U.N. was briefly granted access to the mills for the first time since September, concluded that around 70 percent of the wheat may be salvageable.
But the flour yield will be lower than normal as weevil infestation has caused hollow grains, the U.N. said, based on that assessment.
Talks aimed at securing a mutual military withdrawal from Hodeidah have stalled despite U.N. efforts.
Yemeni government officials accuse the Houthis of violating the peace deal while the Houthis say they need guarantees the government will not take advantage of it to redeploy its forces.
Under the proposed withdrawal, a government retreat would free up access to the Red Sea Mills and humanitarian corridors would also be reopened. The warring sides would still need to agree on which road could be used to transport supplies from the site to recipients.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are leading the military coalition backing Hadi's government.
(Reporting By Aziz El Yaakoubi; editing by John Stonestreet)