Yemen government says Huthis faking Hodeidah pullout
SANAA - Yemeni rebels said they were set to begin a unilateral withdrawal from the lifeline port of Hodeidah on Saturday in a bid to kickstart implementation of a December truce brokered by the UN.
But a senior pro-government official accused the Huthi rebels of faking the announced pullout from three Red Sea ports in the flashpoint province.
Hodeidah is the main entry point for the bulk of Yemen's imports and humanitarian aid, providing a lifeline to millions of civilians who have been pushed to the brink of famine by more than four years of devastating conflict.
The head of the rebels' Supreme Revolutionary Committee, Mohammed al-Huthi, said fighters would start pulling back at 10 am (0700 GMT).
He said the rebels had been forced to act unilaterally after the Saudi-backed government repeatedly delayed a parallel pullback from parts of the city of Hodeidah that it had pledged to make under the truce deal reached in Sweden.
"The (rebel) army and committees are withdrawing unilaterally as a result of the refusal of the countries of the US-British-Saudi-Emirati aggression and their allies to implement the accord," the rebel leader said on Twitter.
The United Nations announced late Friday that the rebels would begin a long-delayed withdrawal from Hodeidah and two other Red Sea ports on Saturday, the first step on the ground since the hard-won ceasefire deal was reached.
The agreement was hailed as a breakthrough that offered the best chance so far of ending the war in Yemen.
Bu although the fighting has largely stopped, there have been intermittent clashes and the promised redeployment of the warring parties away from the front lines has failed to materialise.
The withdrawal of rebel forces will now be completed by Tuesday, the head of the UN redeployment committee, General Michael Lollesgaard, said in a statement.
A UN observer mission led by Lollesgaard will monitor the pullback.
Demands for verification
The announced pullback was met with skepticism by officials from Yemen's internationally recognised government.
"The Huthis are staging a new ploy by handing over the ports of Hodeida, Saleef and Ras Issa to themselves without any monitoring by the United Nations and the government side," provincial governor Al-Hasan Taher said.
Taher's accusation came after the Huthi rebels said they had carried out their obligations.
"We have implemented all obligations of the first phase of redeployment. The UN must commit the other side to implement its obligations," Brigadier Mohammed al-Qaderi, the Huthi representative in a joint coordination team, said on Twitter.
Sources close to the Iran-aligned Huthis said that the ports were handed over to coast guard personnel who were in charge before the rebels took over almost five years ago.
There was no independent confirmation of a rebel withdrawal, and the UN observer mission remained cautious in its initial assessment.
"The UN has started monitoring this unilateral step," a source said. "The UN hopes soon to be in a position to report to the Security Council on actual movements on the ground."
The council is due to hear a briefing on Hodeidah on Wednesday.
The Hodeidah governor said the unilateral step of the Huthis contradicted the terms of the ceasefire deal and accused the UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, of collaborating with the rebels.
"Martin Griffiths wants to achieve victory even if the Huthis hand over (the ports) to themselves," the government-appointed official said.
"This is totally rejected by us, and the agreement must be implemented in full, especially with regards to the identity of the troops that will take over from the Huthis," Taher said.
The information minister of the government, Moammer al-Eryani, welcomed the UN announcement but demanded joint verification of the promised rebel withdrawal.
"We welcome any measures towards the implementation of the Sweden agreement on redeployment in ports in Hodeidah province and warn of attempts by the militia to mislead the international community and the (UN) Security Council before the next meeting," Eryani tweeted.
He said any unilateral redeployment by the rebels without control and joint verification "cannot be accepted."
Untapped grain stocks
Lollesgaard welcomed the rebel plan "to undertake an initial unilateral redeployment from the ports of Hodeidah, Saleef and Ras Issa."
Saleef is a minor port further up the Red Sea coast that is planned for development as a grain import hub.
Ras Issa is an oil export terminal for the oilfields in Marib province in the government-controlled interior.
Nearly all goods, including vital aid deliveries of grain, currently pass through Hodeidah.
The main storage and distribution centre for the imported grain lies in government-held territory on the outskirts of the city.
The silos of the Red Sea Mills currently contain some 51,000 tonnes of grain -- enough to feed 3.7 million people for a month -- but it has gone unused since the fighting forced the UN to withdraw its staff in September.
After an initial inspection visit in February, a World Food Programme team finally gained access to the silos last Sunday after a month of delays for security reasons.
But the mills came under renewed fire on Thursday, with two silos hit, one of them containing wheat, the UN said.
The United Nations had announced a deal in February for phased pullbacks by the two sides, but its implementation faltered over rebel concerns that forces linked to the Saudi-led coalition would exploit it to take over the ports.
The coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015 when President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi fled into Saudi exile as the rebels closed in on his last refuge in second city Aden after sweeping though most of the rest of the country.
The conflict has killed tens of thousands people, many of them civilians, relief agencies say.
The fighting has triggered what the United Nations describes as the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with 24.1 million -- more than two-thirds of the population -- in need of aid.