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Yemen's rebel withdrawal from Hodeida met with doubt

Images shared on Saturday showed the Houthis transferring power amid UN presence [Getty]

Date of publication: 12 May, 2019

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The Houthi withdrawal from vital lifeline ports on Yemen's west coast was met with wide distrust on Saturday, with many describing the move as a mere show.
The UN confirmed a withdrawal by Yemen's Houthi rebels from three Red Sea ports had begun on Saturday, however the move was doubted among Yemenis, including government officials who claimed it was nothing more than a ploy.

Sources close to the Houthis said that the ports were handed over to coastguard personnel who were in charge before the rebels took over almost five years ago.

An AFP photographer at Saleef port saw Houthi troops leave the facility, and men dressed in coastguard uniforms enter, adding that these movements were observed by the UN.

"Yes, it has begun," said UN spokesman Farhan Haq, when AFP asked whether redeployment of Houthi troops was underway.  

The rebel pullback is a first step in implementing a hard-won ceasefire deal reached between Yemen's internationally-recognised government and the Houthi rebels late last year.

But the withdrawal, and whether it actually did take place, has been widely doubted by Yemenis.

The govenor of Hodeida, Al-Hasan Taher, said the Houthis were merely reshuffling personnel, echoing sentiments shared by Yemenis on social media.

"The Houthis 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," the government-appointed official said.

UN envoy "Martin Griffiths wants to achieve victory even if the Houthis hand over (the ports) to themselves," Taher 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 Houthis," he added.

Yemen's information minister accused the rebels of faking the pullout. 

"What the Huthi militia did is a repeated theatrical play of handing over control of the port to its own forces (in different uniforms)," Moammer al-Eryani tweeted on Sunday. 

"This shows its continued manipulation and evasion to implement the Sweden agreement... by adopting a policy of deception."

Meanwhile, the British ambassador to Yemen triggered debate online after accusing Yemenis suspicious of the withdrawal as “cynics”.

“The Yemeni cynics who criticize everything the other side does even if it is positive and who say the UN are naive seem to be saying the only solution is perpetual war in Yemen. I have more faith in Yemenis and believe they can live together in peace and security,” Michael Aron tweeted just hours after the Houthis announced the withdrawal.

But the remarks were met with anger by Yemenis on social media, many of which urged the ambassador to take on board the opinion of people on the ground.

“Please make an effort to listen to them & understand their perspective instead of accusing them of being war mongers. Their reaction & comments r based on experience & solid understanding of the situation. Also & again there is no progress. Houthis handed the port to themselves!,” Yemeni author Nadwa Dawsari responded in a tweet.

Yemeni government official Hamzah Kamaly meanwhile said “Your excellency this is not cynicism, it is realism , Yemeni ppl want sustainable peace , we want your appreciated efforts together with UN and everybody to reach peace , what happened today isn’t step forward it  is frustration for peace process.”

Hodeida port is the main entry point for the bulk of Yemen's imports and humanitarian aid, serving as a lifeline to millions of civilians pushed to the brink of famine by more than four years of war.

UN to meet

The withdrawal of rebel forces is due to be completed by Tuesday, the head of the UN redeployment committee, General Michael Lollesgaard, said in a statement.

The UN Security Council is due to hear a briefing on Hodeida on Wednesday.

The head of the rebels' Supreme Revolutionary Committee, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, pledged that fighters would start pulling back at 10:00 am (0700 GMT) in a bid to restart the stalled ceasefire deal with the government.

He accused the government of delaying a parallel pullback from parts of the city of Hodeida that it had pledged to make under a December truce.

"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 agreement last year in Sweden was hailed as a breakthrough that offered the best chance so far of ending the war in Yemen, where a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is fighting on the government's side.

But 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.

Yemen's information minister demanded joint verification of the promised rebel withdrawal.

"We... warn of attempts by the militia to mislead the international community and the (UN) Security Council before the next meeting," Moammer al-Eryani tweeted.

He said any unilateral redeployment by the rebels without control and joint verification "cannot be accepted.”

The military coalition intervened in March 2015 when President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi fled into Saudi exile after the rebels took swathes of the country.

Yemen's conflict has killed tens of thousands of people, many of them civilians, relief agencies say. 

The fighting has triggered what the UN describes as the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with 24.1 million - more than two-thirds of the population - in need of aid.

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