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Houthis begin withdrawing from Hodeidah ports in boost to peace efforts

Updated May 12, 2019

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Members of the Houthi movement ride in the back of a vehicle during withdrawal from Saleef port in Hodeidah province, Yemen on  May 11, 2019. — Reuters
Members of the Houthi movement ride in the back of a vehicle during withdrawal from Saleef port in Hodeidah province, Yemen on May 11, 2019. — Reuters

HODEIDAH: Yemen’s Houthi movement on Saturday started withdrawing forces from Saleef port in Hodeidah under a UN-sponsored deal stalled for months, a witness said, reviving hopes for peace efforts to end the four-year war.

But a minister in the Yemeni government backed by Saudi Arabia dismissed the Iran-aligned Houthis’ pullout as a “show” meant to “dis-inform the international community”.

The move, yet to be verified by the United Nations, is the first major step in implementing the pact reached last year by the government and the Houthis for a truce and troop withdrawal in Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis.

Yemeni minister describes the move as a show aimed to mislead the world

UN teams were overseeing the Houthi redeployment in Saleef, used for grain, as other teams headed to the second port of Ras Isa, used for oil, to start implementing the withdrawal from there, according to the witness.

A dozen trucks carrying Hou­thi fighters, armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and machine guns, departed from Saleef. Two ships were do­­cked at the port and operations were running normally, said the witness who was at the facility.

“The coast guards have taken over in Saleef,” he said. “They and UN officials have started checking equipment at the port.”

However, Yemeni Information Minister Muammar al-Iryani said the pullout was “a flagrant show”. “It’s an attempt to dis-inform the international community ahead of a meeting of the UN Security Council” on Yemen, he said. “A group of [Houthi] militiamen left and they were replaced by others wearing coast guard police uniforms.” The UN Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC) has said the Houthis would make an “initial unilateral redeployment” from the ports between May 11 and May 14.

It said the redeployment would enable the United Nations to take a leading role in supporting the local Red Sea Ports Corporation in managing the ports and enhance UN checks on cargoes. It would also allow humanitarian corridors to be reopened.

There has been no comment so far from the Saudi-led military coalition that has massed forces outside Houthi-held Hodeidah, which handles the bulk of Yemen’s imports and aid supplies.

Hodeidah became the focus of the war last year when the coalition twice tried to seize its port to cut off the main supply line of the Houthis, whom they accuse of smuggling Iranian weapons, including missiles that have targeted Saudi cities. The group and Tehran deny the allegations.

The peace deal had stalled since January amid deep mistrust among the parties in a conflict that has killed tens of thousands and pushed the poorest Arabian Peninsula nation to the brink of famine.

It calls for coalition forces to leave positions around the outskirts of Hodeidah in the initial redeployment.

It was not clear if UN special envoy Martin Griffiths had secured agreement between the two sides over the main sticking point regarding which local authorities would control the ports and city under UN supervision after both sides withdraw.

The coalition had disputed an earlier unilateral withdrawal by the Houthis from Hodeidah port in December, saying they had handed it over to coast guard members loyal to the group.

A UN source said on Saturday that the RCC would announce its assessment of the Houthi redeployment next week.

Under the first phase, the Houthis would pull back 5km from the ports over the next four days. Coalition forces, currently massed 4km from Hodeidah port on the edges of the city, would retreat 1km from “Kilo 8” and Saleh districts.

Published in Dawn, May 12th, 2019