Houthis say their forces begin redeployment from Hodeidah province, as government dismisses move as a ‘flagrant show’.
The United Nations has said the first full day of the Houthi withdrawal from three of Yemen’s Red Sea ports went “in accordance with established plans”, while an official from the internationally recognised government said there was ‘deception’.
The Houthis began the long-delayed pull out of their forces from the key port of Hodeidah, as well as the two smaller ports of Saleef and Ras Isa, on Saturday as part of a ceasefire deal reached in Sweden in December.
“All three ports were monitored simultaneously by UN teams as the military forces left the ports and the coastguard took over responsibility for security,” former Danish Lieutenant General Michael Lollesgaard, head of the UN’s Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC), said in a statement on Sunday.
The Houthi move is seen as a key first step towards ending the civil war, which erupted in 2014 when the Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa.
Activities in the following days are expected to focus on “removal of military manifestations and de-mining,” the UN statement said.
Yemen’s information minister accused the rebels of faking the pullout.
“What the Houthi militia did is a repeated theatrical play of handing over control of the port to its own forces (in different uniforms),” Moammar al-Eryani tweeted on Sunday.
The ports are used for grain, oil, commerce and aid, with Hodeidah handling 70 percent of the country’s food imports and humanitarian relief.
Security concerns prevented the UN for months from accessing 51,000 tonnes of wheat in silos near Hodeidah that could feed millions in the impoverished country. The team regained access on May 5.
The war in Yemen has been at a stalemate for years, with the Saudi-UAE-led coalition and Yemeni forces unable to dislodge the Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels from the capital, Sanaa, and other urban centres.
The peace deal agreed in December has been at a standstill for months.
“The (Sweden) agreement is very difficult to execute because the lines are blurry and each side interprets it the way it wants to,” Farea al-Muslimi, a visiting fellow at the London-based think-tank Chatham House told the AFP news agency.
“Overall, the next two weeks will show if this is a handover or a yet another hangover,” he said.
Under the plan, the Houthis are to pull back five kilometres from the ports between May 11 and 14. Coalition forces, currently massed four kilometres from Hodeidah port on the edges of the city, are to retreat one kilometres from two flashpoint districts.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, leaders of the coalition backing President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government, have so far not commented on the Houthi ports withdrawal.
UN monitors will verify the Houthi withdrawal on Tuesday.
Saeed Thabet a Yemen political analyst based in Doha said the redeployment appeared to be going smoothly because both sides of the conflict were “trying to buy more time” to reposition themselves on new front lines.
“In addition, both sides are eager to show their commitment to work with the UN especially as the UN Security Council is scheduled to meet this week to discuss progress in Yemen,” he told Al Jazeera.
Yemen’s conflict has killed tens of thousands of people, many of them civilians, relief agencies say.
The fighting has triggered what the UN describes as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with 24.1 million – more than two-thirds of the population – in need of aid.
The Houthi withdrawal represents a”potential breakthrough,” Adam Baron, a Yemen expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank told AFP.
He said he was not “how significant it can truly be” because of lack of trust between the parties.
“[It] only signals progress on one part of the deal and one aspect of the conflict. It’s key to remember that Yemen is not Hodeidah and even amidst the relative calming there, the conflict continues to burn.”