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File photo: Tribesmen loyal to Houthi rebels chant slogans during a gathering aimed at mobilizing more fighters into battlefronts to fight pro-government forces, in Sanaa, Yemen Image Credit: AP

Sana’a: Yemeni security officials and eyewitnesses say that fighting has erupted in the key port city of Hodeida, the first significant clashes since warring sides agreed to a UN-brokered cease-fire deal in December.

They say the combat began overnight into Sunday, leaving fires burning on the main front lines in the city’s east and south, while exchanges of artillery fire shook the beleaguered city.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorised to brief journalists, while witnesses did so for fear of their safety.

The fighting comes days after the internationally-recognised Yemeni government, along with allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, accused Al Houthi militant foes of breaking the ceasefire and refusing to withdraw their forces from the city in line with the December agreement.

The Sweden agreement was the first real successful agreement between Yemen’s internationally-recognised government backed by a Saudi-led coalition and the Iran-backed Al Houthi militants.

However, the government has accused the militants of being disgenuine in their efforts to hand over control of the Hodeida port to neutral parties as agreed on in the pact.

They say the ceasefire has been violated 970 times by the militants and have called on the international community to hold them accountable for the breaches.

A Saudi-led coalition joined the war in 2015 after an Al Houthi coup unseated Yemen’s legitimate government.

Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi was placed under house arrest but later escaped, setting up temporary government headquarters in the southern city of Aden.

Since then, the coalition was able to win back large swathes of territory from the militants, but main population centers remain under Al Houthi control.

A lightening offensive by Yemeni forces last year was able to liberate much of the Al Houthi-controlled territory along strategic Red Sea, but stopped just short of the Hodeida port, the main conduit for goods and aid.

International pressure was placed on Yemeni forces to pause their assault because of the major humanitarian concerns such a battle would have.

However, the government says Al Houthis are using the port to illegally smuggle in weapons from Iran to sustain their military efforts.

Nonetheless, government forces agreed to a halt their offensive, but reserved their right to resume it if peace talks fail.