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In Libya and Yemen war zones, COVID-19 adds a 2nd front

In Yemen, Houthi rebels have been battling a government in exile, backed by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, for years. The fighting has resulted in a catastrophic humanitarian crisis that the coronavirus pandemic is making even more grim. Meanwhile, similar desperation is setting in for another war-torn nation: Libya. Nick Schifrin reports on how COVID-19 is exacerbating suffering in areas of conflict.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, the U.S. announced that it would be providing additional humanitarian aid through the World Food Program to Yemen, including areas controlled by Houthi rebels.

    The Houthis have been fighting a U.S.-and Saudi-backed government-in-exile for years.

    But, as the coronavirus crisis hits a nation already at war, even deeper desperation has set in, as it has in another nation mired in conflict, Libya, where Nick Schifrin begins this report.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On the front line in Libya, the war never stopped.

    So, there are now two wars, the spraying of bullets between the internationally recognized government and fighters loyal to an insurgent commander, and the spraying of disinfectant and social distancing measures to combat coronavirus.

    For more than a year, U.N.-backed President Fayez al-Sarraj of the Government of National Accord and former military leader and U.S. citizen Khalifa Haftar have been fighting for control of Libya. The fighting has driven hundreds of thousands of people into camps.

    And now that the front line has moved to President Sarraj's power base in the capital, Tripoli, civilians are caught in the middle. This bedroom was hit by a rocket that crashed through Abdel Moneim Al-Sharif's roof.

  • Abdel Moneim al-Sharif (through translator):

    What happened today was shelling in our area. The shells were indiscriminate. And this is my mother's apartment.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    As Libya's confirmed coronavirus cases hit 63, Haftar is also targeting medical facilities.

    Dr. Fawzi Abdalla stands outside a Tripoli hospital, where a rocket attack left cars full of shrapnel and a hole in the side of a building.

  • Secretary-General Antonio Guterres:

    It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That call has gone unheeded, and, if anything, the battle over Libya's future intensified.

    Last week, Haftar supporters declared him Libya's rightful leader, and he rejected a U.N.-backed political deal that's in place today.

  • Khalifa Haftar (through translator):

    Dear free Libyans, we have monitored your response to our call to you by announcing the dropping of the suspected political agreement that destroyed the country.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Sarraj has control of major port cities in the north, but little else, says Thomas Hill, a Libya expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

  • Thomas Hill:

    Even though they are nominally the head of the Libyan government and Libyan state, they — their power does not extend much beyond Tripoli.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And the fighting is fueled by foreign forces on opposing sides.

  • Thomas Hill:

    You have Italy more on the side of the government of national accord, the U.S. on the sidelines, and on the other side, you see the French, the Emirati, the Egyptians, sometimes the Saudis, the Russians, sometimes the Jordanians, all backing General Haftar and his Libyan Arab Armed Forces.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In another intractable conflict to the east, Yemen is also ill-equipped for a pandemic.

    For five years, a civil war has raged between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed government of Mansur Hadi in exile. In late march, the Houthis launched ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia. And the Saudis struck Houthi targets in the capital, Sanaa.

    In April, Saudi Arabia announced a unilateral cease-fire, releasing this statement: "The chance is still there for concerted efforts to reach a comprehensive and permanent cease-fire."

    The Houthis rejected it.

  • Muhammad al-Bukhaiti (through translator):

    The Saudi declaration is not a declaration of cease-fire. It is continuation of the war.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.S. had cut humanitarian funding in Houthi-controlled areas, fearing rebels diverting the aid. But today's announcement means the funding will resume.

    It's badly needed. At a hospital in Houthi-controlled Sanaa, beds don't have mattresses, and most of the 20 ventilators are in disrepair.

    Civilians all over the country who've fled their homes and now live in camps feel forsaken.

  • Hasina Ali (through translator):

    Neither the state nor the organizations are helping us. They're telling us to stay inside the camp. How are we to just sit inside when no one is helping us?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yemen's humanitarian crisis is one of the world's most severe, 1.3 million cases of cholera since 2016, widespread flooding that destroyed vital infrastructure.

    A coronavirus outbreak could be disastrous, says World Health Organization representative Altaf Musani.

  • Altaf Musani:

    Millions of Yemenis depend on humanitarian assistance every month. And so the virus, such as COVID-19, coming to Yemen is catastrophic.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For Yemen and Libya, where resources and patience were already thin, this is the worst time for another war.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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