Yemen's Houthi rebels step up attacks in Hodeidah despite ceasefire
Rebels bring reinforcements into city after UN monitor calls out bluff over withdrawal from ports
Houthi rebels launched several attacks on Yemeni government forces in Hodeidah and reinforced positions in the city in their most blatant violations so far of a UN-brokered ceasefire, military sources and residents told The National.
The rebel escalation on Thursday and Friday came before a visit to Yemen by the UN special envoy Martin Griffiths, who arrived in Sanaa on Saturday for talks with Houthi leaders and the head of the UN ceasefire monitoring team, Patrick Cammaert.
Mr Griffiths is expected to visit Hodeidah on Sunday, according to Houthi sources.
The ceasefire that went into effect on December 18 requires the rebels to withdraw from three ports in Hodeidah and for armed forces from both sides to then withdraw completely from the city and surrounding areas.
However, rebels violated the ceasefire more than 250 times in the first two weeks alone, according to a complaint to the UN Security Council by the Yemen and the two main members of the Arab Coalition supporting the government, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The coalition reported another 34 violations on Thursday and Friday.
On Friday night, the rebels fired light and heavy artillery at government forces stationed near Hodeidah University and in Al Rabsa area west of the city, without causing any casualties, a Yemeni military source told The National.
In another attack in the southern Tuhaiyta district of Hodeidah province, several solders from the Amalikah Brigades were killed when the rebels shelled their positions, said Aseel Al Sakladi, director of the brigades' media centre.
Amalikah spokesman Col Mamoon Al Mahjami said the Houthis had also brought in seven tanks from northern provinces under their control.
"In the past 48 hours, the Houthis deployed four tanks in Al Siwiak area in Tuhaiyta and three tanks in the mountains north of Haiys district, on the border between Hodeidah and Ibb province," he said on Saturday.
Hodeidah residents said the Houthis brought reinforcements into the city from northern provinces on Thursday and Friday and set up new checkpoints on Sanaa Street and near the City Max mall and Al Kuraimi microfinance bank.
"Since Thursday, the situation in the city is abnormal. The Houthis pushed in new forces and stationed new battalions on the streets and restored the checkpoints which they had removed from the route leading to the ports," a resident said.
The Houthis removed the checkpoints on the route last week after purportedly withdrawing their forces from the ports, but Mr Cammaert on Wednesday accused them of staging a "charade" by replacing their fighters with supporters disguised as neutral forces.
Sources in the pro-government Tihama Resistance forces said the Houthis began preparing for an escalation after Mr Cammaert reached a dead end in his efforts to implement the ceasefire through the Redeployment Co-ordination Committee. Under the agreement reached at UN-brokered peace talks in Sweden last month, the committee comprises representatives from the rebels and government and is chaired by Mr Cammaert.
Residents said the Houthis had been trying to incite them to protest against Mr Cammaert for being biased towards the government. Rebel commanders had been visiting neighbourhoods and had also called on community leaders to mobilise protesters, they said.
A senior Hodeidah official called for a serious response to the rebel violations.
"It is time to put an end to the dirty game played by the Houthis in the city to save what remains of the state institutions and resources," Waleed Al Qudaimi, the deputy governor of Hodeidah province, said.
"The world has a clear idea about the misleading behaviour of the Houthis: they looted relief aid, the salaries of government employees and state revenues. The group never sticks to any agreement it signs. This is enough to seriously move towards a military liberation of the city."
Mr Al Qudaimi, who is based in Aden, said Mr Cammaert must clearly tell Mr Griffiths and the Security Council who was responsible for blocking the implementation of a ceasefire in Hodeidah.
Mr Griffiths made no public remarks on his arrival in Sanaa but has said previously that a successful ceasefire in Hodeidah would give Yemenis hope for an end to the civil war, which began when rebels seized the capital in September 2014.
The UN envoy has sought to avert a military battle for the port city to avoid civilian casualties and to keep open the main entry point for food and aid shipments received by Yemen.
Already the Arab world's poorest country, four years of war have created the world's worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen, with about 20 million people dependent on food aid.
The UN's World Food Programme has accused the Houthis of exacerbating the crisis by stealing food shipments and threatened to cut off deliveries to rebel-held areas.
The United Nations hopes to hold another round of peace negotiations this month, possibly in Kuwait, to follow up the Sweden talks.
Updated: January 6, 2019 09:55 AM