Urgent efforts needed as famine looms in Sudan: US special envoy

JEDDAH: The United States has circulated a draft UN Security Council resolution calling for an “immediate ceasefire linked to the release of hostages” in the Gaza Strip, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

The diplomat made his announcement while on a tour of the Middle East that will include a stop in Israel.

Key Israel backer the United States has vetoed previous UN Security Council votes on the nearly six-month war, objecting as recently as in February to the use of the term “immediate” in a draft submitted by Algeria.

In recent weeks, however, Washington has upped the pressure on its ally, while insisting that Hamas militants must immediately release the hostages seized by militants during its October 7 attacks on Israel.

“Well, in fact, we actually have a resolution that we put forward right now that’s before the United Nations Security Council that does call for an immediate ceasefire tied to the release of hostages, and we hope very much that countries will support that,” Blinken said in Saudi Arabia.

“I think that would send a strong message, a strong signal,” he told Saudi media outlet Al Hadath on Wednesday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to destroy Hamas in retaliation for the October 7 attacks.

“Of course, we stand with Israel and its right to defend itself… but at the same time, it’s imperative that the civilians who are in harm’s way and who are suffering so terribly — that we focus on them, that we make them a priority, protecting the civilians, getting them humanitarian assistance,” Blinken said.

US officials had been negotiating an alternative text since blocking an Algerian draft resolution calling for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” in Gaza at the end of February.

That alternative, focusing on support for a six-week truce in exchange for the release of hostages, had little chance winning approval, according to diplomatic sources.

A new version, seen by AFP, stresses “the need for an immediate and durable ceasefire to protect civilians on all sides, enable the delivery of essential humanitarian aid, and alleviate suffering… in conjunction with the release of hostages still held.”

No vote has yet been scheduled on this text.

Blinken met Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan and then held talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman soon after landing in the kingdom on Wednesday on the first leg of a regional tour that will include Egypt on Thursday and then Israel on Friday.

Blinken’s tour, his sixth to the region since the war began, runs parallel with talks in Qatar, where mediators met for a third day on Wednesday in a renewed effort to secure a ceasefire but with little indication of an imminent agreement.

The plan being discussed in Qatar would temporarily halt the fighting as hostages are exchanged for Palestinian prisoners and the delivery of relief supplies to Gaza is stepped up.

The latest fighting has included an Israeli assault on Gaza City’s Al-Shifa hospital, a vast complex crowded with patients and people seeking refuge, where Israel says Palestinian militants are holed up.

The Israeli army said “over 300 suspects” had been apprehended in the hospital raid that began Monday, including “dozens of senior terrorists and those with key positions.”

Israel said its forces have “killed approximately 90 terrorists” since the start of the raid, and army chief Herzi Halevi said the objective was “not to allow such a place to be controlled” by Hamas.

Hamas condemned Israeli “crimes” at Al-Shifa “for the third day in a row, the executions of dozens of displaced persons, patients and staff.”

The health ministry in the Hamas-run territory said at least 70 people had been killed in Gaza overnight.

UN agencies have warned that Gaza’s 2.4 million people are on the brink of famine, and UN rights chief Volker Turk said Israel may be using “starvation as a method of war.”

Blinken had earlier warned that Gaza’s “entire population” is suffering “severe levels of acute food insecurity.”

Riyadh announced as Blinken arrived it would donate $40 million to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, which has been central to aid operations in Gaza but has faced massive funding cuts and calls for its abolition spearheaded by Israel.

UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini warned that “siege, hunger and diseases will soon become the main killer in Gaza.”

Rafah, the last area in Gaza to remain free from a large-scale invasion, is now home to some 1.5 million Palestinians, many of them sheltering in tents along the Egyptian border after fleeing from other parts of the coastal territory.

Washington wants Israel to hold back from a full-scale ground assault, citing concern for civilians, but Netanyahu has repeatedly said it was the only way to eradicate Hamas.

Israel has continued to bombard Rafah and said on Wednesday it had “eliminated senior Hamas operatives” in the city.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant will visit Washington in the coming week for talks with Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin, although neither side gave a date.

Netanyahu’s office said a separate delegation would visit Washington at “the request of US President Joe Biden” to discuss the planned Rafah assault.

The bloodiest-ever Gaza war broke out after Hamas’s attacks resulted in about 1,160 deaths in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Militants also seized about 250 hostages, of whom Israel believes 130 remain in Gaza, including 33 who are presumed dead.

Israel’s military has waged a retaliatory offensive against Hamas that has killed almost 32,000 people, most of them women and children, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

The talks in Qatar this week have given little indication of an imminent agreement.

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