The United Nations envoy to Yemen urged warring sides to “keep the peace” in Hodeidah, saying the Houthi rebels agreed to talks on the U.N. taking a leading role in running the lifeline port.
Mark Griffiths, who started a Yemen peace mission in rebel-held Sana’a on Wednesday, said he has discussed with Houthi rebel officials “how the U.N. could contribute to keeping the peace” in the key port city of Hodeidah.
“I am here to tell you today that we have agreed that the U.N. should now pursue actively and urgently detailed negotiations for a leading U.N. role in the port and more broadly,” he told reporters during his first visit to Hodeidah on Friday, November 23.
“We believe that such a role will preserve the essential humanitarian pipeline that starts here and serves the people of Yemen.”
Griffiths urged Yemen’s warring parties to “keep the peace” in the rebel-held Red Sea port city, which serves as the entry point of nearly all imports and humanitarian aid into the impoverished country.
“The attention of the world is on Hodeidah. Leaders from every country have called for us all to keep the peace in Hodeidah,” he said.
Griffiths was in the country ahead of planned peace talks in Sweden in December between the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels and pro-government forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition.
According to an AFP correspondent, clashes could be heard in the distance as the envoy visited the lifeline port.
Griffiths met rebel chief Abdulmalik al-Houthi and addressed “what can facilitate new discussions in December,” rebel spokesperson Mohammed Abdelsalam said on Thursday.
Abdelsalam said that included “procedures needed to transport injured and sick for treatment abroad and bring them back,” a key sticking point during a previous failed attempt at talks in September.
Both warring sides have expressed support for the envoy’s mission to hold discussions.
‘Committed’ to peace talks
The United Arab Emirates’ state minister for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, whose country is a key player in the Saudi-led coalition, reiterated Friday that the UAE was “committed” to peace talks.
“The best way forward towards a sustainable political process is to support the Sweden talks and the work of the U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths without prejudging these negotiations,” he said on Twitter.
Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi — whose government was pushed out of Sana’a by the rebels in 2014 – has also said he supports the talks while vowing to “liberate” the city of Hodeidah.
Despite a lull in fighting, Hodeidah residents reached by telephone said on Friday that Huthi rebels have been bringing in reinforcements.
Dozens of families have fled Hodeidah, as the rebels stationed snipers on top of peoples’ homes, according to residents and pro-government military officials.
The conflict in Yemen, which escalated when the Saudi-led alliance intervened in 2015, has killed thousands and left up to 22 million Yemenis in need of humanitarian assistance, according to U.N. agencies.
‘Bursts of fighting’
Under heavy international pressure, the loyalists and their Saudi-led military backers have largely suspended a five-month offensive on Hodeidah.
Humanitarian organizations are desperate to see the current peace push translate into a more permanent halt to the four-year war.
The U.N.’s World Food Programme said Friday it had distributed 30,000 food baskets – each containing enough to feed a family of six for one month – in Hodeidah city.
“In a city that has been enduring on and off bursts of fighting, these food baskets have an added benefit of helping families to avoid travelling more than necessary to find food, limiting their own security risks,” WFP said in a statement.
“Despite the difficult situation, WFP is currently assisting eight million Yemenis every month with food or food vouchers.”
U.N. agencies say 14 million Yemenis are at risk of starvation and the closure of Hodeidah port would further exacerbate the humanitarian crisis.
The heads of the U.N.’s humanitarian and children’s agencies said the “recent de-escalation in fighting in Hodeidah is providing a desperately needed respite to hundreds of thousands of civilians.”
The current peace push by Griffiths is the biggest effort in two years.
In September, a previous round of U.N.-led peace talks faltered when the Houthis refused to travel to Geneva, accusing the world body of failing to guarantee their delegation’s return to Sanaa or secure the evacuation of wounded rebels to Oman.
Previous talks broke down in 2016, when 108 days of negotiations in Kuwait failed to yield a deal and left rebel delegates stranded in Oman for three months.
According to the World Health Organisation, nearly 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen’s conflict, though some rights groups estimate the toll could be five times higher.
With reporting from AFP