Yemenis Agree on Truce in Key Port Ahead of U.S. Saudi Vote

(Bloomberg) -- The Saudi-backed Yemeni government and Shiite rebels agreed a ceasefire covering a crucial Red Sea port city, as U.S. pressure mounts to end fighting that triggered a humanitarian catastrophe.

The deal on Hodeidah, a key rebel lifeline for food and supplies, “will see a mutual redeployment of forces from the port and the city and the establishment of a governorate-wide ceasefire,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Thursday at the end of peace talks in Sweden.

The sides will meet again at the end of January, he said, while an agreement on reopening Sana’a airport could be achieved in a week or less, perhaps initially for domestic flights. The belligerents have also agreed to exchange thousands of prisoners.

The breakthroughs came as U.S. lawmakers put Saudi Arabia’s role in the war under greater scrutiny as tensions spiked following the killing of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi by government agents in Turkey.

“This is better than anyone really expected at the beginning of the talks and a good step forward,” said Peter Salisbury, a consultant at International Crisis Group. “But this is just the beginning of a long and arduous process to implement and sustain the ceasefire around Hodeidah.”

The Senate plans to vote Thursday on a resolution that seeks to withdraw U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s military campaign to restore a friendly government in Yemen. Saudi officials have blamed the war on Iran’s desire to expand its influence in the region by supporting the Houthi rebels, who in 2015 ousted internationally-recognized President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.

Hadi’s government, supported by the coalition, said the offensive to seize control of Hodeidah aimed to force the Houthis to negotiate an end to the war.

“The UN will play a leading role in the port and this will facilitate humanitarian access and the flow of goods to the civilian population and it will improve the living conditions for millions of Yemenis,” Guterres said. The agreement will be presented to the Security Council on Friday.

The war, seen as a proxy battle for regional influence between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, has ravaged a country already struggling with deep poverty and dysfunction. Thousands of civilians have been killed with millions more either fleeing or forced from their homes. Three-quarters of the country’s 28 million people need aid to stave off hunger and disease, and half of them require it urgently to survive, according to the UN.

The parties also agreed to:

  • Ease the situation in the city of Taiz and open humanitarian corridors
  • Exchange thousands of prisoners, hammering out a timeline and details for implementation of the deal
  • Discuss a framework for future political settlement at the next meeting in January

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