Dubai- Yemen’s warring parties have failed to leave the main port city of Hodeida more than two months after agreeing to a UN-led truce deal as part of efforts to end the almost four-year war that has pushed the country to the brink of famine.
The two sides agreed at December consultations in Sweden, the first in two years, on a ceasefire and troop withdrawal from Hodeida in the first major breakthrough in peace efforts.
The truce has largely held but the withdrawal has yet to materialise amid deep mistrust between the Iran-aligned Al Houthi movement, which controls Hodeida, and the Saudi-led coalition trying to restore the ousted government of Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
WHY HASN’T THE DEAL BEEN IMPLEMENTED?
The Sweden agreement never spelled out which local authority would take control after fighters withdrew. Al Houthis hold Hodeida while other Yemeni fighters backed by the coalition are positioned on the outskirts of the city.
On December 29, the Al Houthis started leaving Hodeida port and handed over to local coast guards. The coalition objected, saying those units were loyal to the movement.
A UN observer team headed by retired Dutch Major General Patrick Cammaert had no verification mechanism in place to assess the local units and struggled to bring the two sides together for talks. He resigned in January and handed over to a Danish general, Michael Anker Lollesgaard, who relaunched meetings on a ship off the coast of Hodeida.
After weeks of diplomacy that also involved special envoy Martin Griffiths, the United Nations announced on February 7 that a preliminary agreement had been reached for a phased approach.
Al Houthis were due within days to withdraw 5 km from the port of Saleef, used for grains, and Ras Eisa oil terminal. They would also clear the areas of landmines and heavy weaponry.
After the move was verified, the group would pull out of Hodeida port alongside a coalition retreat of 1 km from the “Kilo 7” eastern suburb of the city, where battles raged before the ceasefire went into force on December 18.
But the UN is still trying to bridge the gap between both sides on the local authority that would take over under UN
supervision, before a wider redeployment in the second phase.
There are several proposals on the table, including agreeing a common list of coast guards and police force members.
WHY IS Hodeida SO IMPORTANT?
The port handles the bulk of Yemen’s commercial and aid supplies and is critical for feeding the population of 30 million people in the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula.
It became a focus of fighting last year, raising concern that a full-scale assault could so disrupt supply lines there would be mass starvation in a country where 16 million people face severe hunger. The fighting has made it difficult to open humanitarian corridors.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates twice launched an offensive last year to seize the port, seeking to weaken the Al Houthis by cutting off their main supply line.
If the Hodeida deal fails, chances are slim for further peace talks to agree a framework for political negotiations to end the conflict, which has killed tens of thousands of people.
WHY IS THE CONFLICT SO COMPLEX?
Yemen’s fractious armed groups and parties, numerous before the war, have proliferated further since 2015, and they all have their own agenda. The war also revived old strains between North and South Yemen, formerly separate countries that united into a single state in 1990 under slain former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Southern separatists resented concentration of resources in the north. Although from the north, the Shiite Zaydi sect chafed as their stronghold in Saada became impoverished. In late 1990s, they formed the Al Houthi group, fought the army and forged ties with Iran. Extremists set up an Al Qaida wing in the south.
Mass pro-democracy protests in 2011 forced Saleh to step down after some of his former allies turned on him and the army split. His deputy, Hadi, was elected to a two-year term to oversee a democratic transition, but was undermined.
In 2014 the Al Houthis, aided by Saleh loyalists, seized Sana’a forcing Hadi to share power. When a federal constitution was proposed, both Al Houthis and southern separatists rejected it.
The Al Houthis arrested Hadi in 2015, but he escaped and fled to Aden. The coalition then entered the war on Hadi’s side.