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Yemenis fear collapse of UN-backed ceasefire accord

Ceasefire significant step towards ending devastating conflict, but analysts warn success depends on sustained international pressure
Yemeni pro-government fighter forces walks in Houthi-held Red Sea port city of Hodeida on Sunday (AFP)

Residents of Yemen's flashpoint port of Hodeida and other cities fear a UN-brokered ceasefire may collapse at any moment, saying that after four years of conflict any accord is fragile.

On Friday morning, a day after the breakthrough agreement was reached in Sweden by representatives of the Yemeni government and the Houthi Shia rebels, many held their breath.

The Red Sea port of Hodeida - rebel-held and besieged by loyalist forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition - a key conduit of aid, had awakened to calm after weeks of confrontation, AFP said.

Still, hours later scattered clashes broke out with artillery and machinegun exchanges heard through the south and east of the city, residents said. It was the first test of the fragile ceasefire.

Thursday's ceasefire has been seen as the most significant step towards ending Yemen's devastating conflict, but analysts said its success depends on sustained international pressure.

Yemen’s internationally recognised government indicated on Saturday that the ceasefire may collapse if the rebels fail to begin withdrawing their forces from Hodeida province in coming days, the National website reported.

“The next few days are crucial for the implementation of the ceasefire, if the Houthis refuse to leave Hodeida then it will lead to the collapse of the agreement,” a source close to the government told the National.

The agreement stipulates that armed forces from both sides must withdraw from three key ports and the rest of the province before both government and rebel factions begin disengaging in Hodeidah city.

Speaking to the UN Security Council on Friday, UN special envoy Martin Griffiths called for the creation of a strong monitoring mechanism for the fragile truce in the city.

Hodeidah serves as a vital gateway for aid and food imports to the country, where 14 million people are on the brink of famine.

"A robust and competent monitoring regime is not just essential. It is also urgently needed," said Griffiths, adding that "allowing the UN the lead role in the ports is the vital first step".

He said Yemen's warring parties told him they would welcome the monitoring and he called for them to allow it to be established "within days".

Saturday morning saw calm return to Hodeida, but shops and schools remained shuttered as gunmen deployed through the south and east.

On Saturday evening, a Hodeida resident told AFP he could hear "continuous sounds of fire exchange and artillery" in the east of the city.

Some voiced scepticism that the deal would hold. 

"I was so happy they had reached a solution for Hodeida but our happiness was short lived," 28-year-old resident Noha Ahmad told AFP after Friday night's clashes.

Omar Hassan, 40, said residents of the beleaguered city have been "desperately waiting for calm and security to be restored".

"Now we are afraid that clashes will return and persist," he said.

Yemen's warring parties agree to end hostilities in Hodeidah

"The talks in Sweden were a positive step in light of the humanitarian hardships of Yemen and Hodeida in particular," said shop owner Marwan Halissi.

But he too agreed that more should be done to cement the ceasefire, calling for a bigger UN role and more "pressure on coalition countries" to pave the way for a lasting settlement.

The two warring sides also agreed to meet again in late January, for more talks to define the framework for negotiations on a comprehensive peace settlement.

A prisoner swap involving some 15,000 detainees is planned and a "mutual understanding" was struck to facilitate aid deliveries to Yemen's third city Taiz - under control of loyalists but besieged by rebels.

In other parts of the impoverished Arabian Peninsula country, there were also concerns that the ceasefire struck in the Swedish city of Rimbo may be short-lived.

In the rebel-held capital Sanaa, the agreement was met with mixed emotions.

On Friday, the day of the main weekly Muslim prayers, clerics issued calls for citizens to enlist in the ranks of the Houthis, pro-rebel media reported.

The Houthis also issued a statement saying: "We are prepared for any option and to retaliate against any violation by the enemy."

Still, Ismail al-Ghobeiri, strolling in a Sanaa market, struck a hopeful note.

US Senate resolution on Yemen passes, but long road lies ahead

"We hope that both sides will respect what they agreed on and, if this is done, then the next round of negotiations" due to be held in January will have a chance, he said.

More than 60,000 people have been slain in armed violence in Yemen since January 2016, an independent research group has said, with almost half of those killings this year alone.

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) said earlier this week that 60,223 people were killed in Yemen between January 2016 and the end of November 2018.

That’s more than six times higher than a previous UN estimate that put the death toll in Yemen at 10,000.

The figure includes both combatants and civilians who were killed as a direct result of armed violence in Yemen.

It does not include deaths caused by disease or malnutrition, as thousands more have died in Yemen as a result of the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in the country.

As many as 85,000 children under five may have died as a result of starvation or disease since the beginning of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen in April 2015, Save the Children said last month.