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Saudi-led coalition reportedly halts fighting in Hodeidah ahead of peace talks

Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi says he supported talks but that the battle 'to liberate Hodeidah is inevitable, whether through peace or war'
Workers unload wheat assistance provided by Unicef from a cargo ship at the Red Sea port of Hodeidah (AFP)

The Saudi-led coalition has reportedly instructed forces on the ground to halt fighting in the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah.

According to coalition sources who spoke to Reuters news agency on Thursday, the decision corresponded to international calls for a ceasefire ahead of planned UN-led peace talks to end the deadly war that has lasted for more than three years, leading millions of Yemenis to the brink of famine.

Yemen's exiled president has backed UN-proposed talks to end fighting in his war-torn country but vowed to "liberate" the battleground rebel-held port city of Hodeidah regardless of the peace process.

Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi "has issued directives to back all efforts that guarantee the interests of Yemen in reaching sustainable peace" based on UN resolutions, a spokesman for the president said via the official Saba news agency.

"The battle of the Yemeni people to liberate Hodeidah is inevitable, whether through peace or war," the statement said.

Hadi's comments came just hours after the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a key ally of the Yemeni government, said it supported UN plans to hold peace talks in Sweden by the end of the year.

Forces loyal to Yemen's government halted an offensive on the lifeline port of Hodeidah on Wednesday.

Three military officials told the AFP news agency that pro-government forces were "ordered"  to stop their assault against Houthi fighters until further notice, but would resume operations should the rebels attack.

Anwar Gargash, the UAE state minister for foreign affairs, said meanwhile that his country welcomed the "early convening of UN-led talks in Sweden" and urged warring factions to take advantage of diplomatic efforts.

The UN is pushing for peace talks by the end of the year, and Sweden has said it is ready to host them.

Relative calm

The developments came after the offensive on Hodeidah by pro-government forces and the Saudi-led coalition, including the UAE, appeared to stall.

After 12 days of clashes, Hodeidah was "quiet" and its port was "operating", Gargash tweeted.

"We are working closely with the UN on expanding humanitarian assistance for all areas of Yemen," he added.

On the ground in Hodeidah, a relative calm was holding for a second full day, and despite the thundering sound of jets flying overhead, no major fighting was reported, AFP said.

Burnt out cars were seen on the streets of the city, whose port serves as a key lifeline to the impoverished country.

Speaking to AFP earlier, a military official said pro-government forces had temporarily stopped their advance into the port to allow safe passage for civilians, humanitarian staff and wounded.

One military official said however that the pro-government forces would be launching major operations "in the coming days".

"The battles will not stop, except with the liberation of Hodeidah and the whole west coast," he said.

On Tuesday, a Houthi spokesman had told a news conference broadcast on the rebels' Al-Masirah TV that they were ready for "war in the streets" of Hodeidah.

The Houthis, who seized the port in 2014, said they were placing mines across Hodeidah province, airing footage late on Tuesday of what they said were landmine explosions targeting pro-government forces.

Three port employees reached by telephone said they had also begun to mine entryways to the port overnight.

The Houthis had planted explosives near two of the port's gates, one that leads to Jizan Road, a main street in the city's north, and the other near the Alsanabel flour mill company, they said.

"There is only one entrance left into the port, and that is the main gate that leads to Mina Street that trucks use," one employee, who requested anonymity, told AFP.

Hodeidah port came under attack late Monday for the first time since June, when government troops supported by the Saudi-led coalition launched an assault on the city.

The port's deputy director, Yahya Sharafeddine, said the main entrance to the docks had been hit, but it was fully functioning.

Residents in Hodeidah say they had feared a siege on the city, home to some 600,000 people, with only one major exit route still open to traffic, on the northern edge.

Conditions 'extremely, extremely bad'

According to the UN's office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on Tuesday, 34 people were killed among 92 civilian casualties in the first week of November in Hodeidah province.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said about 445,000 people have fled Hodeidah province since June.

Bottom line, we need for this war to end

- World Food Programme chief David Beasley

Nearly four years into the war, there has been an increase in international pressure to end the fighting in Hodeidah, whose docks are the entry point for some 80 percent of food imports and humanitarian aid into impoverished Yemen.

The UN has warned an attack on the port would be "catastrophic" in a country where half the population is at risk of starvation.

World Food Programme chief David Beasley, who is visiting the country, said up to 14 million Yemenis were on the brink of starvation, and 18 to 19 million were now "food insecure".

"Conditions on the ground are extremely, extremely bad," he told the BBC on Wednesday. "Bottom line, we need for this war to end."

Hodeidah port is under a near-total blockade by Saudi Arabia and its allies, who accuse Iran of smuggling arms to the Houthis. Tehran denies the accusation.

According to independent researchers, more than 56,000 people have been killed since January 2016, with the war triggering what the UN calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis. The official World Health Organisation toll of nearly 10,000 dead has not changed since early 2017.

Rights groups fear the actual toll is a lot higher.