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article imageViolence calms in Yemen's Hodeida amid diplomatic pressure

By AFP     Nov 13, 2018 in World

Diplomatic efforts to end fighting in Yemen's Hodeida intensified Tuesday, as Britain said the Saudi-led coalition had agreed to the evacuation of wounded rebels from the country ahead of proposed peace talks in Sweden.

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.

UN aid chief Mark Lowcock on Tuesday called for a cessation of hostilities "in and around all the infrastructure and facilities on which the aid operation and commercial importers rely", a reference to the port of Hodeida, as pressure mounts for a truce after nearly four years of conflict.

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 Hunt's visit to Riyadh.

The move comes ahead of another proposed round of peace talks in Sweden later this month, Hunt's office said.

But residents in Hodeida, whose port is vital for food imports and humanitarian aid for millions at risk of starvation, say they now fear a siege on the city, where only one major exit route is still open to traffic, on the northern edge of the city.

And despite an apparent temporary lull in the fighting, a spokesman for the Huthis said the rebels were ready for "war in the streets" of rebel-held Hodeida itself.

"We are ready, and present, and our plans are in place" in case of an attack by the rival pro-government alliance, the spokesman said at a news conference broadcast on the rebels' Al-Masirah TV, which did not give his name.

- Port attack -

Residents reported Tuesday that fighting in the city had slowed, and rebel media -- which regularly claims attacks on loyalists -- did not report any new clashes in Hodeida itself.

Both the Huthis and Saudi-led government camp reported outbreaks of violence elsewhere in Yemen late Tuesday.

The Huthis' media office said air strikes had killed nine civilians in Jarahi, west of Hodeida city.

The rebels blamed the raids on the Saudi-led coalition, which said it was investigating the report.

"We take this report very seriously and it will be fully investigated as all reports of this nature are," said coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki.

"Whilst this is ongoing, it would be inappropriate to comment further."

Despite UN warnings that an attack on the port could trigger a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, Hodeida itself was hit Monday night by what multiple sources said were two air strikes, the first attack on the docks since government forces launched a major offensive to retake the port five months ago.

Yemen: the battle for Hodeida
Yemen: the battle for Hodeida

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.

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

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

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-Masirah TV.

- International pressure for peace -

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

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

Lowcock said the UN was ready to play a role in "ensuring the appropriate use of key facilities, especially around Hodeida".

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 Saudi-led coalition has also come international pressure to end the conflict following the killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in his country's consulate in Istanbul on October 2.

The United States, Britain and France this week called for the cessation of hostilities in Yemen and the resumption of negotiations to end the war.

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

A Yemeni child suffering from severe malnutrition cries at a hospital in Yemen's northwestern H...
A Yemeni child suffering from severe malnutrition cries at a hospital in Yemen's northwestern Hajjah province on November 11, 2018

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

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

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