Warring sides in Yemen agree to truce in key city

Supporters of the Houthi rebels performing a traditional dance at a gathering in Sanaa, Yemen, on Thursday. The Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition have agreed to withdraw their forces from the port city of Hodeida.
Supporters of the Houthi rebels performing a traditional dance at a gathering in Sanaa, Yemen, on Thursday. The Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition have agreed to withdraw their forces from the port city of Hodeida.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

UN-brokered deal opens main gateway for humanitarian aid entering country

CAIRO • Yemen's warring parties have agreed to a ceasefire in the crucial port city of Hodeida, the United Nations chief has said, announcing the biggest step towards peace in years for a war that has produced the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

The Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels have agreed to withdraw their forces from Hodeida, the main conduit for humanitarian aid entering Yemen, and to implement a ceasefire in the surrounding province, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters.

He announced the deal in Rimbo, Sweden, on Thursday at the end of a week of negotiations intended to pave the way for full peace talks.

Amid smiles and handshakes, representatives from the two sides also agreed to implement a prisoner exchange involving as many as 15,000 people, and to allow a humanitarian corridor into Taiz, Yemen's third-largest city. They agreed to meet again next month.

The terms of the deal announced by Mr Guterres were vague in places, with talk of a "mutual redeployment" to stop the fighting in Hodeida, and a "leading role" for the UN in the city. The UN will oversee the withdrawal of all combatants from the city within 21 days, but there was little detail about how that will happen.

Although the agreement offered a glimmer of hope for a conflict whose dire toll has drawn global outrage, numerous earlier peace efforts in Yemen have quickly crumbled, and analysts warned that this one required urgent, concerted international support to save it from a similar fate.

"Now it's time for the UN Security Council to entrench the ceasefire agreement with a resolution," Mr Peter Salisbury, a Yemen expert at the International Crisis Group, wrote on Twitter. "There is no excuse for international inaction now, and this fragile moment must be protected."

 
 
 

Both the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition stressed that the ceasefire agreement signed on Thursday was not a comprehensive peace deal but purely a humanitarian gesture aimed at building goodwill.

"Neither side sees it as the beginning of the end of the conflict," Mr Salisbury said in an interview.

Even so, Thursday's agreement marks a shift in the broader war.

In the past month, the United Arab Emirates, part of the Saudi coalition, led a fierce drive to seize Hodeida, with its warplanes supporting allied Yemeni forces on the ground. They have almost surrounded the city, with the Houthis controlling just one road leading out of it.

Now, those hard-won gains will have to be surrendered if, as the deal stipulates, Hodeida is effectively taken out of the fight.

The international sense of urgency over Yemen has been driven by warnings that the humanitarian crisis could soon turn into a catastrophe.

Aid groups say that tens of thousands of children have already starved to death in Yemen because of the war and that 12 million people are at risk of starvation if the fighting does not stop immediately. A child dies every 10 minutes in Yemen from preventable causes, according to Unicef.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday praised the UN-brokered talks.

"The work ahead will not be easy, but we have seen what many considered improbable begin to take shape," said Mr Pompeo.

NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 15, 2018, with the headline 'Warring sides in Yemen agree to truce in key city'. Print Edition | Subscribe