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Warring Yemen parties agree to compromise on Hodeidah pullback

Proposal for redeploying two sides' forces follows three rounds of talks aboard a UN ship in the port's harbour
Hodeidah is the entry point for the bulk of Yemen's imported goods and humanitarian aid (Reuters)

Yemen's government and Houthi rebels have agreed on a compromise for redeploying their forces from the port city of Hodeidah, the UN has said, shoring up a truce deal that marks the first step toward ending the devastating war. 

The pullback from Hodeidah was initially agreed under the ceasefire deal reached between the two sides in December in Sweden. 

The first phase of the redeployment from the ports of Hodeidah, Saleef, Ras Issa and from parts of the city where there are humanitarian facilities was scheduled to happen two weeks after the ceasefire went into force on 18 December.

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But that deadline was missed as the government and Houthis haggled over the interpretation of the agreement.

Following three rounds of talks aboard a UN ship in Hodeidah's harbour, a proposal was put forward by Danish General Michael Lollesgaard, who heads a UN observer mission "that proved acceptable, in principle", said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric on Thursday. 

"A preliminary compromise was agreed, pending further consultation by the parties with their respective leaders," said Dujarric.

The two sides are to meet again next week to finalise details for the redeployment, if the compromise is endorsed by the Houthi and government leadership, the AFP news agency reported.

'Access to the mills grows ever more urgent'

Despite progress on the deal, UN efforts to gain access to a food storage site in Hodeidah that could feed millions of Yemenis hit a wall.

The Red Sea port is the entry point for the bulk of Yemen's imported goods and humanitarian aid, providing a lifeline to millions in the Arab world's poorest country.

UN aid chief Mark Lowcock urged the Houthis to allow relief groups to cross front lines "in the coming days" to reach the Red Sea Mills, which are located in a government-controlled area of Hodeidah.

The Red Sea Mills silos are believed to contain enough grain to feed 3.7 million people for a month but the granary has remained off-limits to aid organisations for more than four months, AFP said.

The Houthis are refusing to allow UN aid agencies to reach the Red Sea Mills because of security concerns, said Lowcock, who deplored that a solution remained "elusive" despite many rounds of talks.

"Access to the mills grows ever more urgent as time passes and the risk of spoilage to the remaining grain increases," said Lowcock in a statement.

Prisoner talks could 'drag on for months'

Meanwhile, talks on a UN-sponsored prisoner swap in Yemen's war could drag on for months if the Saudi-backed government denies the existence of thousands of Houthi fighters in captivity, the Houthis said on Thursday.

In two rounds of talks in the Jordanian capital Amman, the warring parties have been hammering out details of the prisoner exchange they agreed on last December as a confidence-building gesture at the first major peace talks of the nearly four-year-old war.

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Delegates to the talks have been struggling to come with a final list of detainees after verifying an initial one they exchanged in Sweden that had around 15,000 people, the Reuters news agency reported.

Abdul Qader Murtada, who heads the Houthi delegation, said the government side had accounted for only a tenth of a total of 7,500 of Houthi prisoners held in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

"If the other side remains in its intransigent position of denying the presence of our prisoners, the talks will drag on for months," he told Reuters on the sidelines of the current round of talks, which began on Tuesday.

The Houthis have in turn recognised only 3,600 from an original list of 9,500 names submitted by the government side of their detainees, saying over 4,000 names were either fake, duplicate names or of prisoners who had been released, he added.

High-ranking captives

Murtada also said Houthis had "tens" of captive Saudi military personnel in their jails, some of whom were high ranking and whose release would only take place if all their prisoners were released.

"The Saudis are tied to the fate of the Yemenis as a whole and we reject entering into negotiations with them except over a deal that involves all our prisoners," he said.

The Yemeni government's backers have not commented on the course of the prisoner swap talks.

The discussions over the swap, which would be conducted via the Houthi-held Sanaa airport in north Yemen and the government-held Sayun airport in the south, have also included returning remains of dead fighters from both sides.

Yemen's rebels have been mired in a war with government forces backed since 2015 by a Saudi-led coalition.

The United Nations has described Yemen as the world's worst humanitarian emergency, with 10 million people on the brink of famine.