Fighting grips Yemen's Hodeidah port, complicating peace moves

ADEN (Reuters) - Houthi fighters and Saudi-backed pro-government forces battled in Yemen's port city of Hodeidah on Wednesday, breaching a ceasefire and potentially complicating a troop withdrawal agreement intended to pave the way for wider peace talks.

Hodeidah port, which has been under Houthi control, is a lifeline for millions of Yemenis threatened by starvation because of the war, as it is the main entry point for food imports and aid.

The Houthi withdrawal from Hodeidah and two other Red Sea ports began on Saturday and was the most significant advance yet in efforts to end the four-year-old war.

But both sides reported renewed clashes on Wednesday, a day after the Iran-aligned Houthi movement claimed responsibility for a drone attack that Saudi Arabia said had hit two of its oil pumping stations.

The Saudi-led military coalition will "retaliate hard" for any attacks by the Houthis on coalition targets but remains committed to the Hodeidah peace deal, said a senior official from the United Arab Emirates, which is part of the coalition.

"Despite the Houthi action we are there to support the (U.N.) process, we are there to make sure that the Houthi pullout of Hodeidah is real and that the U.N. can monitor it," UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told reporters in Dubai. "This is our best opportunity."

The United Nations said on Tuesday a withdrawal by Houthi forces from Hodeidah and two other Red Sea ports had been carried out "partly as agreed" by warring parties.

Under the ceasefire and troop withdrawal deal, coalition forces are also expected to leave some areas on the outskirts of Hodeidah. Gargash would not comment on when pro-government forces would withdraw.

VIOLENCE ESCALATES

Houthi-run media said government forces hit various parts of Hodeidah, including the airport, with heavy and medium weapons.

It did not say if they were Yemeni troops or members of the Sunni Muslim coalition, which backs President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi's Aden-based government.

The coalition-backed forces said in a report that Houthi fighters tried to infiltrate Hodeidah and the al-Duraihmi area to its south but pro-government troops foiled them.

United Nations Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths called on the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday to urge the warring parties to work quickly to implement the remaining redeployments agreed during peace talks in Stockholm in December.

Griffiths told the 15-member body said he was still seeking a deal between the parties on local forces to take over security in the area.

Acting U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jonathan Cohen said the council should consider how to hold parties responsible if they do not implement the Stockholm agreement.

"Obstruction of the U.N. process cannot be tolerated. For months apparent breakthroughs have happened just in time for Security Council briefings, then progress stalls," he said.

France said the drone attacks on Saudi oil installations threatened regional security and it urged all sides to avoid an escalation that would put peace talks at risk.

The Saudi-led coalition, which receives weapons and other support from the West, intervened in Yemen in March 2015 after the Houthi movement ousted Hadi from the capital Sanaa.

The war is seen as part of a wider regional conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Tens of thousands of people have been killed, many of them civilians, and aid agencies say the humanitarian crisis is the worst in the world.

(Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations and Rania El Gamal in Dubai; Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Tom Brown and Frances Kerry)

05/15/2019 20:08

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