Rebel Houthis in Yemen have denied accusations they were stealing aid "from the mouths of hungry people" levelled by the United Nations food agency, which has threatened to suspend deliveries.
The World Food Programme (WFP), which provides food to millions of malnourished Yemeni people, on Monday accused Houthi rebels of "criminal behaviour" and of selling on much-needed aid on the black market.
David Beasley, WFP director, said that a survey carried by the agency showed that aid is only reaching 40 percent of eligible beneficiaries in the rebel-held capital, Sanaa. Only a third are receiving aid in the rebels’ northern stronghold of Saada.
"If you don’t act within 10 days, WFP will have no choice but to suspend the assistance … that goes to nearly the million people," he said, in an unprecedentedly strong warning. "This criminal behavior must stop immediately."
Mohammed al-Houthi, who heads the rebels’ Higher Revolutionary Committee, said they had refused to allow the food into the country because it was “rotten” and “violates standards and regulations and is not suitable for human consumption."
The Houthi leader, whose Iran-aligned fighters are locked in a war with the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, also accused the UN of bias.
"The work of these organisations is mostly politicised, and their position… confirms their work has shifted from independent to subordinate" to the United States and Britain, he said.
The accusations came after the Associated Press independently reported that armed factions on both sides of the conflict were stealing food aid, either diverting it to their fighters or reselling it for profit on the blackmarket.
Some groups are blocking deliveries to communities they view as their enemies.
The situation in Yemen has become dire, with millions dependent on aid for survival.
There was a glimmer of hope to come out of peace talks in Stockholm last month, however,
as rebels and government officials agreed to a UN-brokered ceasefire in the flashpoint Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, a key gateway for aid and food imports to Yemen.
The ceasefire went into effect on December 18, and while it has largely held, the two sides have accused each other of violations.