Yemeni rebels have begun to withdraw from the port of Hodeidah, the country’s key aid lifeline, under an agreement reached in Sweden earlier this month, a United Nations official said Saturday, December 29.
The official, who requested anonymity, said the Houthi rebels began to pull back from the Red Sea port at midnight (2100 GMT Friday).
The rebel withdrawal from Hodeidah, which is the point of entry for food aid to some 14 million Yemenis U.N. agencies say are on the brink of famine, is a key part of a ceasefire that went into effect on December 18.
Pro-government forces are also supposed to pull back from parts of the city they recaptured in an offensive they launched with the backing of a Saudi-led coalition on June 13.
The Houthis began “the first phase of redeployment from the Hodeidah port” a rebel official told the Houthi-run Saba news agency.
The rebels held a ceremony to mark the occasion, an AFP correspondent reported.
The U.N. Security Council last week unanimously approved a resolution authorizing the deployment of observers to oversee the hard-won truce for Hodeidah that was agreed by the Saudi-backed government and the rebels in Sweden this month.
Retired Dutch general Patrick Cammaert is heading a joint truce monitoring committee, which includes both government and rebel representatives, and chaired its first meeting this week.
The U.N.-led panel addressed “the first phase of the implementation of the agreement … based on ceasefire, confidence building measures to deliver humanitarian assistance and redeployment,” a U.N. statement said.
It added that the panel would convene again on January 1 to discuss “detailed plans for full redeployment.”
“As a confidence building measure, the parties have agreed to begin opening blocked humanitarian corridors, starting with the Hodeidah-Sana’a road, followed by other routes, in a phased manner,” said the statement.
Despite the start of the Houthi withdrawal, the agreement hit a stumbling block later on Saturday with the coalition saying the rebels had not allowed an aid convoy to leave the port.
Coalition spokesman Turki Al-Maliki said that the insurgents “denied the exit of the U.N. humanitarian convoy … headed to Sana’a that was carrying 32 tonnes of flour,” in a statement carried by state-run Saudi Press Agency.
The Houthis, in turn, said in a statement that the road was “not yet unblocked because the other side has not withdrawn” from Hodeidah city.
The truce has remained shaky, with the two sides accusing each other of violations.
A resident reached by telephone on Saturday told AFP pro-government and rebel forces had exchanged fire briefly overnight.
The resident added that coalition jets were heard overhead on Saturday morning.
In addition to the withdrawal of fighters from Hodeidah, the agreement included a planned prisoner swap involving some 15,000 detainees.
A “mutual understanding” was also reached to facilitate aid deliveries to Yemen’s third city Taiz – under the control of loyalists but besieged by rebels.
The two sides have agreed to meet again in late January for more talks to define the framework for negotiations on a comprehensive peace settlement.
The war between the Shiite Houthi rebels and troops loyal to President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi escalated in March 2015, when he fled into Saudi exile and the Saudi-led coalition intervened.
Since then, the war has killed some 10,000 people, according to the World Health Organization, although human rights groups say the real death toll could be five times as high.
More than 22 million people – three quarters of the population – now depend on humanitarian assistance to survive.
Yemenis struggling to survive such conditions are also confronted with a collapsed economy, leaving civil servants and teachers without pay for months.
On Thursday, Hadi instructed the government to pay the salaries of civil servants in the rebel-held city of Hodeida starting this month, a move that was welcomed by the U.N..
“President Hadi’s decision is an important step towards improving the economic situation, and alleviating the humanitarian suffering of the Yemeni people,” the office of the U.N. special envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths tweeted.
With reporting from AFP