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Yemen truce and prisoner exchange timelines pushed back, UN envoy says

The United Nations envoy for Yemen said the expected timeline for a truce in the flashpoint city of Hodeidah and a prisoner swap between warring parties had been pushed back.

Envoy Martin Griffiths hosted hard-won peace talks between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and rival Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Sweden last month.

The two parties, who have been at war for four years, agreed at the talks to a mass prisoner swap and an ambitious ceasefire pact in Hodeidah, the Red Sea city home to the impoverished country’s most valuable port.

Griffiths, who arrived Monday, January 28 in Sana’a on his third trip to Yemen this month, said there had been “changes in timelines” for both deals.

“That momentum is still there, even if we have seen the timelines for implementation extended, both in Hodeidah and with regard to the prisoner exchange agreement,” he told Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.

“Yet such changes in timelines are expected, in light of the facts that the timelines were rather ambitious and we are dealing with a complex situation on the ground.”

Griffiths also confirmed reports retired Dutch general Patrick Cammaert, who heads a monitoring team tasked with overseeing the Hodeida truce, would be replaced. Cammaert arrived Saturday in Yemen.

“General Cammaert’s plan was to stay in Yemen for a rather short period of time to … lay the ground for establishing the Hodeidah mission,” he said.

“All the speculations about other reasons for General Patrick’s departure are not accurate.”

The Houthis, who control Hodeidah, have accused Cammaert of not being up to the task and of pursuing “other agendas.”

Hodeidah was for months the main front line in the Yemen war after government forces supported by Saudi Arabia and its allies launched an offensive to capture it in June.

But a precarious calm has largely held in the city since the ceasefire agreement came into force on December 18.

The Hodeidah agreement stipulates a full ceasefire, followed by the withdrawal and redeployment of rival forces from the city – two clauses that have yet to be fulfilled.

Griffiths said on Monday another round of consultations was temporarily on hold pending progress on the current agreements. Earlier this month he had said that planned talks had been postponed until February.

“We are all on the same page that we need to see progress in implementing what was agreed in Sweden before convening the next round of consultations,” Griffiths said.

‘Food is a weapon’

The U.N. on Friday reported apparent mortar shelling at the Red Sea Mills in Hodeidah had started a fire that left two food silos damaged.

“The loss of this wheat comes at a terrible time,” said the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator Lise Grande.

“How long can the international community accept this Houthi game – ceasefire, regroup, ceasefire, regroup?” a member of the coalition told AFP, requesting anonymity.

“Only when you catch them by the neck will they come to the negotiating table.”

The sentiment was echoed by other pro-government troops who insisted to AFP that military action was the only solution even if it results in bloodshed.

But the truce has given the World Food Programme “some breathing room” to reach districts in southern Hodeidah that were previously inaccessible due to fighting, its country director Stephen Anderson told AFP.

However, 51,000 metric tonnes of wheat – one quarter of WFP’s flour-milling capacity in Yemen – remains locked away in the Red Sea Mills.

“We have been trying to get access … [But I hear] the Houthis aren’t allowing us to get to the mill,” WFP chief David Beasley said in an interview in Davos.

“So it is four steps forward, two steps back, but I am still cautiously optimistic.”

Salman, the Yemeni commander, alleged the Houthis hoarded grain, creating artificial shortages and exacerbating famine-like conditions.

When the Houthis controlled the mill, they accused the coalition of destroying food with indiscriminate air strikes.

“The Red Sea Mills is a leverage point being used in the most Machiavellian ways by all warring parties to achieve political goals,” said Wesam Qaid, executive director of Yemeni development organisation SMEPS.

“Whoever controls such facilities will have greater say on who gets fed. Food is a weapon.”

The Yemen conflict has killed some 10,000 people since a Saudi-led military coalition intervened in support of the beleaguered government in March 2015, according to the World Health Organization.

Human rights groups say the real death toll could be five times as high.

The war has pushed 14 million Yemenis to the brink of famine in what the United Nations describes as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Hodeidah: The strategic port at the center of Yemen’s war

With reporting from AFP

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