Yemen’s Houthi group has agreed to unilaterally withdraw forces from three key ports in Hodeidah province, the United Nations said on Friday, a move needed to pave the way for political negotiations to end the country’s four-year war.
The group will redeploy its fighters from the ports of Hodeidah, Saleef and Ras Isa over four days, starting on Saturday, said the UN mission to support a peace deal brokered in Sweden last December.
In a statement, the mission’s Redeployment Coordination Committee said the troop redeployment was “a first practical step on the ground” under the pact, which marked the first major breakthrough in peace efforts to end a war that has killed tens of thousands of people and pushed Yemen to the brink of famine.
The UN mission will monitor the redeployment, the statement said, adding that it must be followed by “the committed, transparent and sustained actions of the parties to fully deliver on their obligations”.
The move should allow the UN to take “a leading role in supporting the Red Sea Ports Corporation in managing the ports” and to enhance UN checks on cargoes.
Al Jazeera’s James Bays, reporting from the UN headquarters in New York, cautioned it was “too early to say” whether Friday’s announcement signalled an “actual breakthrough”.
“The Stockholm deal in December, brokered almost six months ago, said the Houthis should pull out and they haven’t done it yet,” Bays said.
“If the Houthis don’t do it this time, it could collapse the whole peace process,” he added.
Part of the problem with the deal is that its thin on details that can be interpreted in different ways, Elisabeth Kendall, a senior research fellow at Oxford University told Al Jazeera.
“The Stockholm agreement said that Hodeidah would be handed over to local forces and both sides … would like those local forces to be its forces,” Kendall said.
She added that the UN has been trying to iron out any differences and the Houthi withdrawal came as a surprise, saying: “I am not sure whether the UN exactly knows what to put in place for the port at the moment.”
Under the agreement, pro-government forces are also expected to leave positions around the outskirts of Hodeidah in the initial redeployment, before a second phase in which both sides pull back further.
The UN statement, however, did not mention any reciprocal move by pro-government forces, who are backed by a Saudi-UAE-led military coalition.
Shortly after the announcement, Moammar al-Eryani, Yemen’s information minister, said the offer of redeployment was “inaccurate and misleading”.
In a post on Twitter, al-Eryani added that any withdrawal that did not allow for joint monitoring and verification was unacceptable.
The coalition alleges the Houthis use Hodeidah as a landing point to smuggle weapons supplied by Iran into Yemen, a charge the Houthis have denied.
Humanitarian officials have long pleaded with Yemen’s warring sides to spare the port, which serves as the entry point for the bulk of Yemen’s commercial imports and a lifeline for aid supplies.
The conflict in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country and home to an estimated 28 million people, began with the 2014 takeover of the capital, Sanaa, by Houthi rebels, who toppled the internationally recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Concerned by the rise of the Houthis, believed to be backed by Iran, the Saudi-UAE-led military coalition launched an intervention in 2015 in the form of a massive air campaign aimed at reinstalling Hadi’s government.
The subsequent fighting and an ensuing economic collapse have unleashed the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis, pushing millions of people to the brink of starvation.