UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The expected pullout of forces from three key ports in Yemen provides an opportunity to move to the major goal of ending the four-year conflict that has created the world's worst humanitarian crisis, the U.N. envoy for the war-battered country said Tuesday.
Martin Griffiths told the U.N. Security Council that Yemen's government and Houthi Shiite rebels demonstrated that they are able to deliver on commitments they made in December in Stockholm by agreeing on the first phase of redeployment from the ports.
He said forces will initially be withdrawn from the smaller ports of Salif and Ras Issa, beginning "possibly" Tuesday or Wednesday. This will be followed by a pullout from the major port of Hodeida and critical parts of the city that will allow access to the Red Sea Mills, a major U.N. storage facility holding enough grain to feed 3.7 million people for a month, he said.
Griffiths called on the parties to fully implement the first phase and to agree on details of the second phase of the redeployment of forces, "which we hope will lead to the demilitarization" of Hodeida, whose port handles about 70 percent of Yemen's commercial and humanitarian imports.
A U.N. official said the first phase involves pulling back several kilometers, and the second phase a withdrawal of 18 to 30 kilometers (11-18 1/2 miles), depending on the location and fighters. In some places in Hodeida city, the opposing forces are facing each other about 100 meters apart, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because negotiations were private.
The conflict in Yemen began with the 2014 takeover of the capital, Sanaa, by the Iranian-backed Houthis, who toppled the government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. A Saudi-led coalition allied with Hadi's internationally recognized government has been fighting the Houthis since 2015.
The fighting in the Arab world's poorest country has killed thousands of civilians, left millions suffering from food and medical care shortages, and pushed the country to the brink of famine.
U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said about 80 percent of Yemen's population — 24 million people — need humanitarian assistance including nearly 10 million "just a step away from famine" and nearly 240,000 "facing catastrophic levels of hunger."
Lowcock told the council the figures "are considerably worse than last year," stressing that aid agencies are running out of money and facing restrictions in the Houthi-controlled north and on deliveries of fuel.
The U.N. is appealing for more than $4 billion to assist 15 million people across Yemen this year and Lowcock implored donors to pledge generously at a conference next week in Geneva convened by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and co-hosted by Sweden and Switzerland.
"We expect current resources to be used up by the end of March — just six weeks from now," Lowcock said. "Without adequate resources, the aid operation will grind to a halt at a time when more people need more help than ever before."
On the political front, Griffiths said the Stockholm agreement was "a breakthrough" and a major shift by the warring parties, but he said it "was only ever intended to be a preliminary step."
He recalled in a video briefing from Amman, Jordan that he previously told the council "that Hodeida was the center of gravity of the war — and it is."
"In truth, our primary interest, the real center of gravity of this war, has to be moving towards a political solution," Griffiths said. "The implementation of the Hodeida agreement as announced today gives us permission to look ahead beyond the agreement made in Stockholm."
He said starting a discussion on political and security arrangements for Yemen would be "a major step forward and an important statement of intent from the parties that they are determined ... finally, to bring this conflict to a close."
Another key part of the Stockholm agreement was the exchange of prisoners, which has been the subject of two rounds of talks in Amman.
Griffiths said both sides seek the release of all prisoners and "I would like to think that we are not far off from agreeing and realizing the release of a first batch."