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Pro-government official casts doubt on rebel withdrawal from Hodeidah port

Official says Houthi fighters are present in both the navy and coastguard units that the rebels reportedly handed control of the port to
A UN source said the Houthi forces, which control Hodeidah and its strategic port, had started to withdraw overnight (AFP)

Yemen's Houthi rebels have started to withdraw from the port of the Red Sea city of Hodeidah as part of a UN-sponsored peace agreement signed in Sweden earlier this month, a UN source and a spokesman for the group said on Saturday.

The Houthis had agreed with the Saudi-backed government to implement a ceasefire in Hodeidah province and redeploy their respective forces, but a pro-government official cast doubt on the the process of the withdrawal from the port. 

Hodeidah's Houthi governor, Mohammed Ayash Qaheem, told the Reuters news agency that the group's fighters had withdrawn from the port as specified in the peace agreement, handing control to local units of Yemeni coast guards who were in charge of protecting ports before the war. These will be under UN supervision.

A Reuters camera operator saw the UN team led by Cammaert witnessing the fighters' withdrawal.

However, a pro-government official told the AFP news agency that the loyalists were "surprised" by reports of a port handover. "Who is that that they handed the port to and how," the official said. 

"The Houthis have taken advantage of their control of Hodeidah and placed their fighters in both the navy and coastguard, something that has been a major source of concern for the legitimate government.

"The UN has to have a clear mechanism in place to ensure that there is a proper recruitment process for these crucial infrastructures," the official said.

In a statement carried by Yemen's Saba state news agency, another pro-government official said that it was "a clear attempt by the rebels to warp the contents of the agreement" reached at peace talks in Sweden earlier this month.

Retired Dutch general Patrick Cammaert, the head of a UN advance team charged with monitoring the ceasefire, arrived in Hodeidah this week.

Under the deal, international monitors are to be deployed in Hodeidah and a Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC) including both sides, chaired by Cammaert, will oversee implementation. The committee started its meetings this week.

A UN source said the Houthi forces, which control the city and its strategic port, had started to withdraw overnight.

"Our forces have started to redeploy since last night from Hodeidah port, as agreed in Sweden," a Houthi military spokesman told the group's al-Masirah TV.

The Houthis' withdrawal from the province's three ports of Hodeidah, Salif and Rass Issa is intended to be the first step in the implementation of the agreement, to be followed by both sides pulling their forces out of the city and the surrounding province.

It is still unclear how far they will withdraw and who will control the three ports and the city, or if the two sides will share control with UN monitors positioned between the two fronts.

Cammaert's team will not be uniformed or armed, the UN has said, but it will provide support for the management of and inspections at the ports and strengthen the UN presence in the city.

Humanitarian corridors

Military officials from the government forces, which control some southern parts of the city of Hodeidah, said they needed time to establish if the Houthi forces had really withdrawn from the ports.

The government fears that the coast guards may remain loyal to the Houthi-controlled Sanaa government after the withdrawal.

The truce, the first significant breakthrough in peace efforts in five years, was part of confidence-building measures intended to pave the way for a wider truce and a framework for political negotiations.

The international community has been trying for months to avert an all-out government assault on Hodeidah, the entry point for most of Yemen's commercial goods and aid supplies, and a lifeline for millions of Yemenis on the verge of starvation.

The truce came into force on 18 December.

On Friday, the UN said both parties had agreed to begin opening humanitarian corridors, starting with the key coastal road between Hodeidah and the Houthi-held capital, Sanaa.

The parties are due to present detailed plans for a full redeployment to Cammaert at the next RCC meeting on 1 January, the United Nations said in a statement.

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