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UN envoy predicts troop withdrawal in Yemen's Hodeidah within weeks

Troop withdrawals from port city would trigger first phase of peace negotiations in war-torn country
Houthi forces control most of Hodeidah, while government forces hem its southern and eastern outskirts (AFP/File photo)

Yemen's warring parties may take the first steps towards potential peace negotiations in the coming weeks, the UN special envoy said on Thursday, according to Reuters news agency.

Both sides - the Saudi-backed government and rival Houthi forces - are reportedly planning to withdraw troops from the country's main port city of Hodeidah within weeks.

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The Houthis control most of Hodeidah, while government forces are deployed on its southern and eastern outskirts.

A troop withdrawal would trigger the first phase of negotiations, while discussions are underway for a second phase, Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy told Reuters.

"The two parties agreed formally to the concept of operations for phase one. What we are doing now is ... moving on as planned from there to agree on phase two," Griffiths said during a phone interview.  

Griffith added that talks would "intensify" in the coming days.

Under the UN-sponsored deal, lawmakers from both sides would ultimately meet to agree on a political framework after a troop withdrawal.

Danish general Michael Lollesgaard, head of the UN observer team in Hodeidah, leads a committee tasked with hammering out the details of peace negotiations.

The committee came close to moving forward with a deal on troop withdrawal from Hodeidah earlier this year, but the efforts were stalled over disagreements on who would control the Red Sea port city.

Asked if that issue had been resolved, Griffiths told Reuters that there are "ideas" on "how to bridge the gap on the issue of the local security forces", but said it would be up to the parties represented in the committee to resolve it.

Handling the bulk of Yemen’s imports, including aid supplies, the country's main port city of Hodeidah is critical for feeding the population of 30 million people.

Last year, the port city became a flashpoint in the conflict, raising concerns that serious fighting in the area might halt work at the port and trigger mass starvation in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula.

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"I know we’re spending an enormous amount of time, and rightly so, on Hodeidah, but it’s the gateway to the comprehensive settlement and of course failure in Hodeidah is not an option," Griffiths told Reuters.

"The aim ultimately of an agreement which will resolve the conflict and end this war is to return governing of Yemen to politicians, to return to the people of Yemen accountable government."

In December, the two sides met in Stockholm and agreed on a ceasefire and troop withdrawal at Hodeidah port, an exchange of prisoners, and the reopening of humanitarian corridors to help millions of starving Yemenis, with international monitors to oversee events.

While the ceasefire in Hodeidah has largely held despite an increase in violence in other parts of the country, negotiations quickly crumbled.

The Saudi-led coalition has accused the Houthis of breaching the agreement, and the Houthis are demanding more guarantees from the UN that the other side will not exploit their withdrawal.

The Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen's civil war in 2015 to restore the Yemeni government, but the war has largely reached a military stalemate.

Tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have been killed and economic collapse has left about 16 million facing severe hunger.