Rimbo, Sweden – Yemen’s warring sides remain deadlocked over the future of Hodeidah port, a major lifeline for the country, after the Yemeni government reiterated its demand that it should take control of the facility.
Speaking to reporters on day five of UN-sponsored peace talks in Sweden, Ali Ashall, a Yemeni official and member of the government’s delegation, said it wants the management of the port to be placed under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Transport.
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“The police in the city must also be placed under the supervision of the Ministry of Interior,” Ashall said.
“We are looking to resume the situation in the city before the Houthi takeover in 2014”.
Yemen has been devastated by a multi-sided conflict since 2014 involving local, regional, and international actors.
The Houthis, a group of Zaydi Shia Muslims who ruled a kingdom in northern Yemen for nearly 1,000 years, exploited widespread anger against President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in 2014 and toppled his government in early 2015, triggering one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
Hodeidah port is a major lifeline for humanitarian supplies entering the country, but restrictions placed by the Saudi-UAE coalition at war with the rebels has exacerbated the country’s humanitarian crisis, with more than 22 million Yemenis needing assistance.
“We call on the Houthis to withdraw from Hodeidah and hand over their weapons to the government”, Ashall added.
UN proposes ceasefire deal
The Houthis have said they are prepared to hand over the port to the United Nations, but only if the Saudi-UAE coalition stops its air strikes.
Earlier on Monday, a document seen by Al Jazeera proposed that the Houthis withdraw from Hodeidah as part of a ceasefire deal.
Comprising 16 points, the UN-proposed document said that once the Houthis had withdrawn from the city, including the ports of Saleef and Ras Isa, the Saudi-led military coalition fighting the Shia movement would cease its military operations.
It said that the UN would then deploy a number of observers to monitor the facility but security of the port would be limited to Yemeni coast guards.
The Saudi-UAE coalition has accused Iran of smuggling weapons through Hodeidah’s port, a charge Tehran and the rebels deny.
The document also said that all revenues gathered from the port would be transferred to Yemen’s central bank in Hodeidah which would then start paying the salaries of civil servants.
More than 1.2 million civil servants haven’t received their salaries in more than two years, leaving health, education and sanitation services without the people and resources needed to keep them running.
The Yemeni government, which claims its forces are only 3km from the port, insists that it will only accept that the UN’s role be to oversee the harbour.
Yemen’s Foreign Minister, Khaled al-Yamani, told the Reuters news agency that the city needed to come under the full control of his government.
Houthi representatives were not immediately available for comment.
‘Hodeidah is a flashpoint, centre of gravity’
Yemen’s opposing sides have been meeting in the Swedish town of Rimbo, some 60km north of the capital Stockholm, since Thursday for talks discussing ways to end the fighting that has killed an estimated 56,000 people.
The UN special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, says the talks are not intended to reach a political solution to the conflict but instead introduce a set of confidence-building measures that could pave the way for more comprehensive peace talks.
“Hodeidah is a very difficult issue, it’s a flashpoint,” Griffiths told reporters on Sunday.
“I would describe it as the centre of gravity. It’s one where the threat of battle, of a campaign to take control of the city, has been present for the last few months.
“We in the UN have been trying to prevent that. But it’s now reached the point where either we can or can’t.”
Martin Griffiths, the UN Special Envoy for Yemen: “I hope we will get an agreement on a whole range of issues,” at the peace talks in Sweden. pic.twitter.com/phRRbsMzUh
— Faisal | فيصل (@faisaledroos) December 10, 2018
While the opposing sides appeared to have reached a stumbling block over the fate of the port, they appeared to be edging closer to securing a deal on prisoners.
Sources told Al Jazeera the Houthis were expected to release several high-ranking commanders they had captured within the coming days, including the former minister of defence, General Mahmoud al-Subaihi, and relatives of President Hadi.
Abdulaziz Jabari, a senior adviser to Hadi, said on Sunday that after four days of consultations he expected the next two days to be “full of positive news”.
International pressure to end the war has mounted since the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a leading critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in October by Saudi nationals in their consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
Western powers have expressed anger over the killing and a group of bipartisan senators in the US have been urging the US Congress to limit Washington’s support for the war Saudi Arabia is embroiled in.
A coalition led by Saudi Arabia intervened on March 26, 2015, and has carried out more than 18,000 air raids since, with weddings, medical facilities and funerals not spared from the bombardment.
The talks in Sweden have come at a critical time as about 20 million Yemenis, more than two-thirds of the country, are going hungry and in urgent need of food assistance.
According to recent estimates, as many as 85,000 children may have died from hunger since the beginning of the war.