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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Gargash: UN has deadline to negotiate Houthi withdrawal from Hodeidah

Diplomatic measures appear to have been exhausted and all signs point to a military battle for the city

Yemeni government forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition take a position at an area after seizing it from the Houthi militia in the western province of Hodeidah, Yemen, 27 May 2018 (issued 28 May 2018). EPA/STRINGER
Yemeni government forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition take a position at an area after seizing it from the Houthi militia in the western province of Hodeidah, Yemen, 27 May 2018 (issued 28 May 2018). EPA/STRINGER

The UN on Tuesday evening had just hours left to negotiate the withdrawal of Houthi rebels from the port city of Al Hodeidah, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Gargash on Tuesday.

"We gave U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths 48 hours to convince the Houthis to withdraw from the port and city of Al Hodeidah," Mr Gargash told France’s Le Figaro newspaper. "We are awaiting his response.” The deadline would reportedly expire overnight Tuesday.

The report comes as Mr Gargash on Tuesday said he was "deeply concerned" by reports that Houthi rebels in Al Hodeidah were forcing civil servants and civilians to pick up arms.

He said this was “the Houthi response to international calls for their peaceful retreat. Shows the real and ugly face of their policies.”

UN head Antonio Guterres said Monday that Mr Griffiths was locked in "intense negotiations" with Houthis, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to find a "way to avoid the military confrontation in Al Hodeidah”.

During a meeting with the new Yemeni foreign minister Khaled Alyemany in New York, Mr Guterres stressed that "everyone should redouble efforts to find a political solution and avoid a fierce, bloody battle for Al Hodeidah", UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

The UN pulled all of its international staff out of Al Hodeidah early on Monday morning.

Mr Griffiths held several rounds of talks last week in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, which is held by the rebels.

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Fact sheet on Hodeidah

- UN estimates that 600,000 people live in the city and its environs; 47.5% of the population are below the age of 15

- Hodeidah is Yemen’s biggest Red Sea port and the only one under Houthi control; it is Yemen’s second largest port after Aden

- It has been held by the Houthis since the beginning of the Yemeni Civil War in 2015 - during which time cholera struck and poverty increased

- Hodeidah is situated 150km to the west of the capital Sana’a

- Before the war began, Hodeidah port handled around 70 percent of Yemen’s imports

- Coalition is concerned that the port is used to bring missiles in from Iran

- Coalition had requested UN control of Hodeidah for months - to stop arms smuggling. Requests have not been met

- Attempt to recover the city would be the first major such Coalition operation in Hodeidah, as all efforts had been focused on political resolution

- Coalition forces began preparations for assault on the port in late May, and have secured the coastline stretching from Khawkhah 100km south of the port city to Ad Durayhimi districts roughly 20km south of Al Hodeidah city

- UN envoy Martin Griffith has been engaging in shuttle diplomacy between the Houthi-held capital Sana’a, the UAE and Saudi Arabia in an attempt to avoid fighting for the city

- UAE issued a 48-hour ultimatum to Mr Griffiths on June 10 to persuade the Houthi forces in the city to withdraw; this expired on Tuesday night

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While Mr Gargash continued to call on the international community to “pressure the Houthis to evacuate Al Hodeidah and leave the port intact,” just hours before the UN’s deadline, he appeared to indicate the offensive was imminent. “He added that the Houthi’s “cannot hold Hodeida hostage to finance their war and divert the flow of humanitarian aid. Their assault on the Yemeni people has continued for too long.”

He added, “The current and illegal Houthi occupation of Hodeida is prolonging the Yemeni war. The liberation of the city and port will create a new reality and bring the Houthis to the negotiations”.

However, he said that the UAE and other Gulf countries would make sure humanitarian aid reached all areas of the country.

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Yemen latest

UAE delivers 5,000 baskets of food to displaced Yemenis

More than 250 Houthis killed in Yemen in past week, army says

Three civilians killed in Saudi Arabia in Houthi missile attack

Houthi rebels target Hajj and Umrah agencies

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For the past two weeks, Yemen government troops — backed by the Arab coalition that intervened in the war at the request of the internationally-recognised government of Yemeni President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi — have been closing in on Al Hodeidah, which the Houthi rebels have been using to smuggle in weapons supplied by Iran.

Mr Gargash’s comments came as Wam news agency reported that Arab Coalition Forces destroyed a Houthi ballistic missile base on the outskirts of the Al-Garahi district south of Al Hodeidah. The report said that the coalition forces had targeted several positions, killing 47 Houthi rebels and wounding dozens of others.

It added that Yemeni forces had securing the coastline stretching from Khawkhah some 100 kilometres south of the port city to Ad Durayhimi districts roughly 20 km south of Al Hodeidah city, while operations continued on the eastern areas of the city.

Earlier in the day Tuesday, Wam quoted the governor of Al Hodeidah, Al Hassan Ali Taher, as saying: “Intensified preparations [for the offensive] are underway, including [the movement] of heavy artillery and troops to push Houthis out of the city."

Meanwhile, the US was following developments in Yemen very closely, secretary of state Mike Pompeo said.

US officials had "spoken with Emirati leaders and made clear our desire to address their security concerns while preserving the free flow of humanitarian aid and life-saving commercial imports”, he said.

Militarily, a US source predicted that “a wider campaign that involves serious coalition firepower … makes it unlikely that the Houthis will be able to hold the city or its port for more than a few weeks”.

The coalition would need to sever the main road running north of Al Hodeidah, and also secure the port and airport to establish bases of operation close to the city.

Urban battles, however, will jeopardise civilian lives and risk bogging down assault forces.

The Iran-backed rebels have maintained control of the city since 2015, and have not only used its port to smuggle weapons into Yemen but also to profit from illegally sold humanitarian aid.

A source at the foreign ministry in Abu Dhabi confirmed Mr Hadi had arrived in Abu Dhabi Tuesday evening to hold talks with UAE officials. The source declined to give advanced detail of the planned content of the talks. Mr Hadi’s office had announced the visit Monday evening in a post of the Yemeni president’s website.

Mr Hadi on Monday met the UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed in Saudi Arabia to discuss the flow of humanitarian aid to Yemen, according to Wam news agency.

“The meetings will address the brotherly relations between Yemen and the UAE and the joint efforts pertaining to the Arab coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, to liberate remaining Yemeni territory from the control of the Houthi militia that is supported by Iran,” the online statement from the president’s website said.

With the chances of a diplomatic solution dwindling, the likelihood of a military offensive is increasingly likely despite concerns about trapped civilians. Saudi’s Al Ekhbariya news channel broadcast a video that shows a battle map of Yemeni forces on the outskirts of Al Hodeidah.

Wam news agency quoted the governor of Al Hodeidah, Al Hassan Ali Taher, as saying: “Intensified preparations are underway, including [the movement] of heavy artillery and troops to push Houthis out of the city."

The spokesman of the Arab coalition Col Turki Al Malki stressed in a press conference on Monday the need to protect civilians and sustain the flow of aid.

Col Malki said that Yemeni government forces had prevented an attempt to smuggle forged money and passports to the Houthi rebels in Saada, a town nearly 200km north of Al Hodeidah near the Saudi border, to help them flee the country. He said that some $22 million in fake currency and more than 5,000 passports had been confiscated as it was being transported to Houthi commanders and their families.

Yemen’s minister of human rights Mohamad Askar summed up the dilemma. "There is a humanitarian cost to liberate #Hodeidah, but if the city remains under the control of the Iranian-backed #Houthis militias that's will result in a higher cost for sure,” he tweeted.

The Iran-backed rebels have maintained control of the city since 2015, and have not only used its port to smuggle weapons into Yemen but also to profit from illegally sold humanitarian aid.