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Blast hits UAE-guarded port in Yemen as prisoner swap stalls

Attack in al-Mokha kills at least six and wounds more, local officials tell Reuters
Pro-government forces advance in the western Yemeni coastal town of Mokha in 2017 (AFP)

A blast in the port town of al-Mokha, guarded by the United Arab Emirates and the internationally-recognised government of Yemen, killed at least six people and injured more, local officials told Reuters, as the UN envoy to Yemen said a planned prisoner swap between the government and Houthi rebels has been pushed back to an unspecified date.

Local officials told Reuters the blast on Monday was thought to have been caused by a motorbike bomb and may have been carried out by al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (IS) group, though no one has taken responsibility for the attack yet.

Once a thriving coffee-exporting hub, al-Mokha is now a heavily-guarded naval base for the UAE, which is allied to the Saudi-backed government of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

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Yemen's almost four-year conflict pits the rebel Houthi movement against Hadi's government, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, and has sparked a humanitarian crisis in one of the world's poorest countries.

Al-Mokha, located some 75 km (50 miles) north of the strategic Bab al-Mandab strait, and neighbouring al-Khoukha and al-Heiss, are among the few towns conceded by Houthi fighters since the war started in 2015 after the armed group forced Hadi into exile in Saudi Arabia.

Al-Mokha is one of the military bases used to supply and reinforce coalition-backed forces located on the outskirts of Yemen's largest port Hodeidah, where the United Nations is trying to implement a truce and troop withdrawal.

Prisoner swap delayed

Meanwhile, the UN envoy for Yemen said the expected timeline for a truce in the flashpoint city of Hodeidah and a prisoner swap between warring parties had been pushed back.

Martin Griffiths, who arrived Monday in rebel-held Sanaa on his third trip to Yemen this month, said there had been "changes in timelines" for both deals.

"That momentum is still there, even if we have seen the timelines for implementation extended, both in Hodeidah and with regard to the prisoner exchange agreement," he told Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.

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"Yet such changes in timelines are expected, in light of the facts that the timelines were rather ambitious and we are dealing with a complex situation on the ground."

Griffiths hosted hard-won peace talks between the government and Houthi rebels in Sweden last month.

The two parties agreed at the talks to a mass prisoner swap and an ambitious ceasefire pact in Hodeidah, the Red Sea city home to the impoverished country's most valuable port.

Griffiths also confirmed reports of plans to replace retired Dutch general Patrick Cammaert, who heads the monitoring team tasked with overseeing the Hodeidah truce.

"General Cammaert's plan was to stay in Yemen for a rather short period of time to... lay the ground for establishing the Hodeidah mission," he said.