Warring sides in Yemen agree to truce in key port city

Yemen's foreign minister Khaled al-Yamani (left) and rebel negotiator Mohammed Abdelsalam (right) with United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres (centre), during peace consultations at Johannesberg Castle in Sweden, on Dec 13, 2018.
Yemen's foreign minister Khaled al-Yamani (left) and rebel negotiator Mohammed Abdelsalam (right) with United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres (centre), during peace consultations at Johannesberg Castle in Sweden, on Dec 13, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

CAIRO (NYTIMES) - Yemen's warring parties have agreed to a ceasefire in the crucial port city of Hodeida, the United Nations chief said on Thursday (Dec 13), 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 António Guterres told reporters.

He made the announcement in Rimbo, Sweden, 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 in January.

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 is due to 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.

Mr Anwar Gargash, the Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs, put a positive gloss on the deal, framing it as a product of his forces' military success.

"Our sincere appreciation to the 5,000 Emirati soldiers along with Yemeni forces who were ready to liberate the port," he said in a statement. "Their bravery and commitment made the diplomatic progress possible."

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.

Intense scrutiny of Saudi actions since the killing of dissident Jamal Khashoggi has increased pressure on the Saudi-led coalition to come to talks and raised hopes for a peace agreement.

The Khashoggi case has also upped pressure on the United States, which provides military assistance to the Saudi-led side.

In Washington, the Senate voted resoundingly on Thursday afternoon to withdraw US military assistance for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen. The House, however, earlier this week moved to scuttle the measure, all but assuring that it will expire this year without making it to President Donald Trump's desk. The President would likely veto it anyway.

The fighting in Yemen started when Houthis seized power in the chaos that engulfed the country after the Arab Spring in 2011.

But the war has since developed into a proxy conflict of sorts, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates supporting the government, and Iran backing the Houthis, who belong to an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam known as Zaydism.

The last talks between Yemen's warring sides took place in 2016.

In the talks in Sweden this week, UN officials tried and failed to get both sides to sign on to a framework peace plan.

Officials had also aimed to broker a deal to reopen the international airport in the capital, Sanaa, which has been subject of a Saudi blockade since 2015, but could not reach an agreement on that issue either.

But they were able to strike a deal that may ease the suffering in Hodeida.

In the Yemeni port, where artillery guns boomed across the city on Wednesday night, residents were cautious in their welcome to news of the deal.

"I just hope some life returns to the city so we can live peacefully, at least for a little while," said Mr Ahmed Jerwan, who works in a computer company.

Professor Muneer Shura'ee, a professor of English literature at Hodeidah University, was more sceptical. "I don't think this ceasefire will last," he said.

Still, the deal signed on Thursday exceeded expectations.

At the start of the talks, UN officials were unsure if the two sides would even meet in person, and artillery and warplanes were striking Hodeida, the focus of the Yemen fighting. Houthi fighters dug trenches across roads, apparently in preparation for a bigger battle for the city.

But on Thursday, beaming representatives for the Saudi-backed government, which is based in the southern city of Aden, and the Houthis shook hands in front of Mr Guterres.

Britain's ambassador to Yemen, Mr Michael Aron, described it in a Twitter post as "the moment we've been waiting for!"

The focus turns next to the UN Security Council. Britain, which directs discussions about Yemen, will decide whether to introduce a resolution to reinforce the deal signed in Sweden.

But the key is what happens on the ground in Yemen in the coming weeks, as UN officials oversee the planned withdrawal from Hodeida.

"This is just a first step," said Mr Abdikadir Mohamud, director of Mercy Corps in Yemen. "The measure of the agreement will be taken in action on the ground, not words in a conference room."