Violence calms in Yemen’s Hodeida amid diplomatic pressure

Yemeni pro-government forces on the eastern outskirts of Hodeida on November 9, 2018 | © AFP/File | STRINGER
Yemeni pro-government forces on the eastern outskirts of Hodeida on November 9, 2018 | © AFP/File | STRINGER

Sanaa (AFP) |

After nearly four years of conflict in Yemen, home to what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe, the United States and Britain are now pressing Saudi Arabia and its allies to end the war against the Iran-backed Huthi rebels.

The office of British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the Saudi-led alliance fighting on the side of the government had agreed to the evacuation of up to 50 wounded Huthi fighters to Oman following his visit to Riyadh.

The move comes ahead of another proposed round of peace talks in Sweden later this month, it said.

Clashes between Saudi-backed troops and rebels in the Red Sea port city of Hodeida abated Tuesday, after nearly two weeks of fighting which left nearly 600 people dead, including civilians.

But residents in Hodeida, home to a port vital for food imports and the delivery of humanitarian aid to millions at risk of starvation, say they now fear a siege on the city, where exit routes are being blocked one by one and hospitals seized by armed fighters.

– Port attack –

Rebel-held Hodeida was hit Monday night by what multiple sources said were two air strikes — the first targeting of the docks since government forces launched a major offensive to retake the port five months ago.

Map of Yemen locating Hodeida where at least 150 people have been killed in 24 hours of clashes, medics said Monday.
Map of Yemen locating Hodeida where at least 150 people have been killed in 24 hours of clashes, medics said Monday. | © AFP | AFP

The port’s deputy director, Yahya Sharafeddine, said the main entrance to the docks had been “the target of air raids” but was fully functioning Tuesday.

Three security guards were wounded in the attack, he said.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has warned the destruction of the port could trigger a “catastrophic” situation in a country where 14 million people are at risk of starvation.

Four employees in Hodeida port who requested anonymity told AFP that a rebel commander had been killed in the Monday attack.

The Huthis, who seized Hodeida in a 2014 takeover that included the capital, on Tuesday accused the government of the attacks on the port via their Al-Massirah TV.

The coalition has come under intense international pressure to end the conflict, particularly following the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the kingdom’s rulers, in his country’s consulate in Istanbul on October 2.

Pentagon chief Jim Mattis on Saturday confirmed his country had halted its controversial aerial refuelling support for coalition aircraft involved in the Yemen war.

– Lull in violence –

Pro-government troops reached residential neighbourhoods in Hodeida Sunday, triggering fears for civilians who could be trapped in the city.

Residents reported Tuesday that the fighting had slowed overnight, and rebel media — which regularly claims attacks on loyalists — did not report any new fighting.

“The violent battles stopped on Monday night. We heard a few gunshots here and there at night, but it seems to be calm this morning,” a resident told AFP by telephone, requesting anonymity.

“We haven’t heard any explosions, unlike the past two weeks.”

Other residents have said they feared being trapped in the city, where only one major exit route is still open to traffic and the transport of food and aid, on the northern edge of the city.

Aid groups have urged both parties in the conflict to keep roads open to allow civilians to escape and the transportation of aid through the Hodeida port.

The docks as well as Sanaa international airport are under a near-total blockade by Saudi Arabia and its allies, who accuse Iran of smuggling arms to the Huthis.

Tehran denies the accusation.

The United States, Britain and France this week called for the cessation of hostilities in Yemen and the resumption of negotiations to end the four-year war, a call echoed by the UN secretary general.

UN mediator Martin Griffiths — whose efforts to host negotiations in Geneva in September failed — met with Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani in Riyadh for talks on reviving the peace process, Saudi Arabia’s state news agency reported.

Griffiths has said he hopes to host talks in Sweden by the end of the year.

© 2018 AFP

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