Saudi-led coalition orders halt to offensive on key Yemen port

Hopes rise for breakthrough in conflict as UAE calls for early UN peace talks

 Yemeni pro-government forces on the eastern outskirts of Hodeida on Wednesday. Photograph:  Saleh Al-Obeidi/AFP/Getty Images

Yemeni pro-government forces on the eastern outskirts of Hodeida on Wednesday. Photograph: Saleh Al-Obeidi/AFP/Getty Images

 

Saudi-led coalition forces have halted an offensive against Houthi rebels in Yemen’s Hodeida port after the United Arab Emirates (UAE) called for “early” UN peace talks as an unidentified UN official said there is no formal ceasefire but there has been “a significant reduction of hostilities”.

If this holds, it could be a game changer in the brutal 3½-year war that has devastated the poorest country in the region and driven half of its 28 million people to the brink of starvation.

UAE state minister for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash proposed an “early convening of UN-led talks in Sweden” and urged combatants to co-operate with UN envoy Martin Griffiths’s efforts to convene negotiations by the end of the year in Sweden. To create confidence in his mission, the coalition has accepted the Houthi demand for 50 of its wounded fighters to be evacuated to Oman for medical treatment.

As Hodeida port carries 80 per cent of Yemen’s imports and 70 per cent of humanitarian aid, UN agencies have repeatedly warned that disrupting the flow of food and medicine would be “catastrophic”. Mr Gargash said: “We are working closely with the UN on expanding assistance for all areas of Yemen. ”

Saudi-sponsored Yemeni president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi said he supported talks, but kept the military option open when he argued the battle “to liberate Hodeida is inevitable, whether through peace or war”.

Combat forces

Nevertheless, the Emiratis could end the conflict if they choose. While Saudi Arabia provides air cover and strikes, the UAE contributes most combat forces consisting of Emirati and Sudanese troops and mercenaries. Without ground forces, there is no point in mounting air strikes, which have been blamed for the majority of 57,500 Yemeni fatalities, according to independent estimates.

The UAE statement came after the Houthi repulsed attacking forces following 12 days of bombing and clashes, stalling the coalition’s latest assault in the five-month campaign to seize Hodeida port. Emirati forces have surrounded Hodeida city and port but hardened Houthi guerrilla fighters have mined port approaches and fortified positions within residential areas, risking the destruction of port facilities and massive civilian casualties.

Already facing foreign and domestic opposition to the war, Abu Dhabi crown prince and UAE military commander Mohamed bin Zayed has also had to contend with widespread outrage over his partnership with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi team in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.

The US, Britain and France have urged an end to the war but continue to provide the Saudis and Emiratis with intelligence, logistics support and weaponry. Although the US, at Saudi request, stopped refuelling Saudi war planes conducting bombing missions in Yemen, congressional Republicans blocked a Democrat-sponsored measure to halt US backing for the war.

This effort coincided with a European Parliament call on governments to monitor arms supplies to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The EU is the second-largest arms exporter to this region after the US. Germany, Switzerland and Norway have halted the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia and its allies and pressed for an end to the war.