HODEIDA, Yemen: This file picture taken on Jan 1, 2019 shows fishing boats moored to a dock in this embattled Yemeni Red Sea port city. – AFP

HODEIDA: Yemen’s Houthi movement yesterday started withdrawing forces from Saleef port in Hodeidah under a UN-sponsored deal that had been stalled for months, a Reuters witness said, reviving hopes for peace efforts to end the four-year war. The move, which has yet to be verified by the UN and accepted by the Saudi-led coalition, is the first major step in implementing the pact reached last year by the Saudi-backed government and the Iran-aligned Houthis for a truce and troop withdrawal in Hodeida, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis.

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 Houthi 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.”

The UN’s Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC) has said that the Houthis would make an “initial unilateral redeployment” between May 11 and May 14 from Saleef, Ras Isa and Yemen’s main port of Hodeida. It said the redeployment would enable the United Nations to take a leading role in supporting Red Sea Ports Corporation in managing the ports and enhance UN checks on cargoes. It would also allow reopening humanitarian corridors.

But a senior pro-government official accused the Houthi rebels of faking an announced pullout from three Red Sea ports in the flashpoint province of Hodeida yesterday. “The Houthis are staging a new ploy by handing over the ports of Hodeida, Saleef and Ras Issa to themselves without any monitoring by the United Nations and the government side,” provincial governor Al-Hasan Taher told AFP.

Taher’s accusation came after the Houthi rebels, who have been in control of the ports since 2014, said they had carried out their obligations. “We have implemented all obligations of the first phase of redeployment. The UN must commit the other side to implement its obligations,” Brigadier Mohammed Al-Qaderi, the Houthi representative in a joint coordination team, said on Twitter.

Sources close to the Iran-aligned Houthis told AFP that the ports were handed over to coast guard personnel who were in charge before the rebels took over almost five years ago. There was no independent confirmation of a rebel withdrawal, and a UN observer mission in the city of Hodeida remained cautious in its initial assessment. “The UN has started monitoring this unilateral step,” a source told AFP. “The UN hopes soon to be in a position to report to the Security Council on actual movements on the ground.”

The council is due to hear a briefing on Hodeida on Wednesday. The Hodeida governor said the unilateral step of the Houthis contradicted the terms of the ceasefire deal and accused the UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, of collaborating with the rebels. “Martin Griffiths wants to achieve victory even if the Houthis hand over (the ports) to themselves,” the government-appointed official said. “This is totally rejected by us, and the agreement must be implemented in full, especially with regards to the identity of the troops that will take over from the Houthis,” Taher said.

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, who they accuse of smuggling Iranian weapons, including missiles that have targeted Saudi cities. The group and Tehran deny the accusations. 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 Hodeida in the initial redeployment.

UN assessment next week

It was not clear if 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 Hodeida port in December, saying they had handed it over to coast guard members loyal to the group.

A UN source told Reuters yesterday that the RCC would announce its assessment of the Houthi redeployment next week. Under the first phase, the Houthis would pull back five km from the three ports over the next four days. Coalition forces, currently massed four km from Hodeida port on the edges of the city, would retreat one km from “Kilo 8” and Saleh districts. In the second phase, both sides would pull troops 18 km outside the city and heavy weapons 30 km away.

The United Nations secured the Hodeida deal at peace talks in Sweden, the first in two years, to avert a full-scale assault on the port that risked so disrupting supply lines that it could trigger mass famine. The pact is also a trust-building step to pave the way for wider political negotiations to end the conflict, widely seen in the region as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Western allies, which supply arms and intelligence to the coalition, have pushed for an end to the war.

The alliance led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened in Yemen in 2015 after the Houthis ousted the internationally recognized government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi from power in the capital Sanaa in late 2014. The Houthis, who say their revolution is against corruption, control the biggest urban centers while Hadi’s government holds the southern port of Aden and a string of coastal towns. – Agencies