Houthis prepare to pull back from Hodeidah
Government dismisses pullout from ports as a ploy and insists on UN verification
Yemen's Houthi rebels announced a unilateral pullout from three key ports in Hodeidah on Saturday as part of a long stalled ceasefire agreement, but the move was quickly dismissed by the government as a sham intended to mislead the international community.
The withdrawal, announced by the head of the rebels' Supreme Revolutionary Committee Mohammed Ali Ali Houthi, will continue until Tuesday, according to the UN observer mission in Hodeidah.
A witness told Reuters that fighters were seen withdrawing from Saleef port on Saturday and handing over control to coast guards with UN officials present.
However, the UN mission overseeing the ceasefire agreement is functioning with only about a fifth of its approved strength, sources told The National.
Diplomats and officials at the UN said there were only 15 observers in Hodeidah, instead of the 75 approved by the Security Council, as a result of bureaucratic delays. Forty-seven observers are awaiting visas to enter the Yemen and start work, they said.
The observers are supposed to monitor the implementation of the Hodeidah ceasefire agreed at UN-brokered talks in Sweden in December under which all forces would withdraw from the port city, easing the entry of food and humanitarian aid for millions of Yemenis affected by four years of war.
Danish Lieutenant General Michael Lollesgaard, head of the mission, said the rebel withdrawal should allow the United Nations to take "a leading role in supporting the Red Sea Ports Corporation in managing the ports" and to enhance UN checks on cargoes.
However, Yemeni Information Moammar Al Eryani said the rebels were not actually relinquishing control of the ports.
"What happened today is a flagrant show, a group of militiamen left and they were replaced by others wearing coastguard police uniforms," Mr Al Eryani told Reuters.
"It's an attempt to disinform the international community," he said.
The UN-brokered deal is vague on who will control Hodeidah's ports after the sides withdraw, saying a "local force" would take over without specifying further.
Sadiq Dweid, spokesman for the government's delegation to the Redeployment Co-ordination Committee chaired by Gen Lollesgaard, said his side would hold the United Nations responsible for implementing the December pact "as agreed in terms of verification, monitoring, and the removal of mines, obstacles and military installations".
A government official said a meeting was scheduled with Gen Lollesgaard later on Saturday.
Along with the rebels, government forces backed by the Saudi-led military coalition are also expected to leave positions around the outskirts of Hodeidah in the initial redeployment, before a second phase in which both sides pull back further.
Western states, some of which supply arms and intelligence to the coalition, are pressing for an end to the conflict, and the Hodeidah ceasefire is seen as the first step towards that goal.
British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt welcomed the Houthi pullout from the ports. "We appear to be approaching implementation of the mutual redeployment of forces - a key step to ending this brutal war," he tweeted.
Kurt Tjossem, the International Rescue Committee's regional director for the Horn and East Africa, said in a statement "it is crucial that the force redeployments move forward and are verified and are followed by sustained commitment by all parties to make good on their Stockholm obligations".
Last month UN special envoy Martin Griffiths told Reuters the Saudi-backed government and the Houthi group had formally agreed a first phase of troop redeployments, while discussions were still under way for the second phase.
Humanitarian officials have long pleaded with Yemen's warring sides to spare Hodeidah, a lifeline for the crippled economy, dependent on the World Food Programme's biggest aid operation to feed more than 10 million people.
Updated: May 12, 2019 07:30 AM