UN calls for talks after rebels seize key port in Yemen

Recapture of Hodeida amounts to a major Houthi gain in the stalemated six-year war

Fighters loyal to Yemen’s Saudi-backed government march during a mass funeral for fellow fighters, killed during clashes with Huthi rebels, in Yemen’s western province of Hodeida recently. Photograph: Khaled Ziad/AFP via Getty Images

The UN has said the rebel Houthi seizure of Yemen’s strategic Hodeida port following the withdrawal of pro-government forces represents “a major shift of the front lines in the Hodeida governorate” and has called for talks between the sides.

As more than 6,000 civilians have fled the area, the UN has urged both sides to “uphold their obligations to protect civilians”.

UN envoy Hans Grundberg called for de-escalation in the fighting, which has taken a high toll among Houthi fighters due to Saudi air strikes.

The recapture of Hodeida amounts to a major Houthi gain in the stalemated six-year war, which is the world's worst humanitarian catastrophe. The shift in front lines could open the road from Hodeida port to the Houthi-held capital Sanaa, facilitate the flow of aid, fuel and commercial goods to the Houthi-controlled north, and encourage the Saudis to end the maritime blockade of Hodeida port, the main gateway for aid and imports.


The Houthis have conditioned their acceptance of a ceasefire and participation in peace talks on reopening Hodeida, lifting the blockade, and resuming flights to Sanaa’s international airport. It is not clear, however, whether the Hodeida withdrawal will lead to Saudi acceptance of these demands and to redeployment of pro-government forces elsewhere.

Explaining their withdrawal, the pro-government military command issued a statement saying they had “recognised the mistake of remaining in defensive barricades, unable to fight under an international pact, while various front lines require support”.

Troops released from Hodeida could be dispatched to the Marib front where Houthi fighters have been battling government forces since February for control of oil-rich Marib province, the last in the north held by Saudi- and Emirati-sponsored pro-government troops.

Clashes erupted in Hodeida in mid-2018 when Saudi-backed government forces captured Hodeidi port from the Houthis. After six months of fighting, the sides agreed to a UN-brokered ceasefire, a pullback of troops from the port, and an exchange of 16,000 prisoners in a deal seen as a precursor to negotiations to end the conflict.

While there have been phased prisoner releases, the mutual withdrawal from the port did not happen. Consequently, the Hodeida situation had remained frozen while stalemate in the war reigns elsewhere and there have been no peace talks.

The Yemen war began in March 2015 when Saudi Arabia and the Emirates intervened in the country's civil conflict after the Houthis expelled from Sanaa the government headed by interim president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and Houthi fighters swept south towards Aden port.

Since then Mr Hadi has resided in Riyadh while the war has killed more than 130,000 people, forced 80 per cent of the 30 million Yemenis to depend on foreign aid, displaced four million, and devastated the region's poorest country.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times