SANAA, June 18, (Agencies): UN ceasefire efforts in Yemen appeared to have fizzled on Monday, raising fears for civilians as Saudi-backed pro-government forces press an offensive to retake the key rebel-held port city of Hodeida. After two days of talks in the capital Sanaa, UN envoy Martin Griffiths was due to brief the Security Council later Monday on his efforts to end the crisis over Hodeida, a key entry point for desperately-needed aid in a country on the brink of famine. But the Iran-backed Houthi rebels said the talks had failed, and the head of their unofficial government rejected a ceasefire under current conditions after meeting Griffiths on Sunday.
Abdulaziz Saleh bin Habtoor accused Saudi-led forces of “escalating their attacks on the western coast when they felt there were serious moves towards a solution”. The Saudi and Emirati-backed assault has seen thousands of families displaced as loyalist forces battle towards the Red Sea port city.
The Houthis, Zaidi Shiite tribes linked to Iran, seized control of the area along with the capital Sanaa and much of northern Yemen in 2014, sparking an intervention by a Saudi-led alliance the following year.
The war for control of the Arab world’s poorest country has since killed at least 10,000 people and triggered what the UN says is the world’s largest single humanitarian crisis. Some 22 million people need aid, while 8.4 million are on the brink of starvation. More than 70 percent of Yemen’s imports flow through Hodeida. Yemen’s military, backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, last week launched a major offensive aimed at retaking Hodeida, home to 600,000 civilians.
The Saudi alliance imposed a near-total blockade on Hodeida port earlier this year, alleging it served as a major conduit for illicit arms deliveries to the Houthi rebels by Riyadh’s regional arch-rival Iran. Multiple rounds of UN-brokered talks have failed to reach a deal between the internationally- recognised government and the Houthis. The Houthis’ bin Habtoor was defiant on Sunday after meeting the UN envoy.
“The peace sought by the people of Yemen will not come at the expense of our martyrs’ blood,” the rebels’ Saba news agency quoted him as saying. The capture of Hodeida would be the Saudi-led coalition’s biggest victory of the war so far. Loyalist forces in recent days closed in on areas south and west of the port, advancing on a disused rebel-held airport just south of the docks, according to sources in the Yemeni army.
The UN has warned the Hodeida offensive could spark a fresh humanitarian crisis in a country already ravaged by war. The Security Council on Thursday demanded that Hodeida port be kept open to vital food shipments, but stopped short of backing a Swedish call for a pause in the offensive to allow for talks on a rebel withdrawal. Rights groups, including the International Committee of the Red Cross and Norwegian Refugee Council, have said they were forced to suspend their work near Hodeida last week. Civilians deaths have not yet been confirmed in Hodeida. The conflict has killed at least 139 fighters, mostly rebels, according to medical and military sources.
Battle to end war
A senior official in the United Arab Emirates said Monday that the battle for Hodeida is aimed at forcing Shiite rebels to negotiate an end to the three-yearlong war. Anwar Gargash, the minister of state for foreign affairs, told reporters in Dubai that the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, have as many as 3,000 fighters around the Red Sea port city. He said the Saudi-led coalition, which includes the UAE, has “numerical superiority” over the Houthis, without elaborating. He said France offered a minesweeping vessel, but was not involved in the offensive.
The campaign for Hodeida began Wednesday. Aid groups fear fighting could halt crucial food imports in a nation already on the brink of famine. The UAE warned the insurgents to withdraw unconditionally from the flashpoint port city of Hodeida, after UN peace efforts fizzled. “There can be no conditions in any offers to withdraw,” the United Arab Emirates’ Anwar Gargash told a press conference in Dubai. “If the rebels wanted to set conditions, they should have thought of that a year ago … Now is not the time to negotiate.”
Gargash’s statement came hours before the UN’s top Yemen envoy, Martin Griffiths, was due to brief the Security Council on his efforts to end the crisis over Hodeida, whose port handles over 70 percent of Yemen’s imports. Gargash said the Saudi and UAEled offensive aimed “to help the UN envoy in his last chance to convince the Houthis to withdraw unconditionally from the city and avoid any confrontation.” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told Qatar’s ruler on Monday that a military approach in Yemen would fail, Iranian state TV reported, after Saudi-led coalition aircraft bombarded Iran-aligned Houthi fighters holed up at the airport of the country’s main port city Hodeidah.
“The crisis in Yemen should be resolved through political channels … a military approach will fail … Yemen’s stability and security is important for the Middle East,” state TV reported Rouhani telling Qatar’s Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in a phone call. Shi’ite Muslim Iran is involved in a proxy war with Sunni Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, where Tehran backs President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war, Shi’ite militias in Iraq, Houthi forces in Yemen’s conflict and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.