Forces loyal to Yemen’s internationally recognised government have withdrawn from the strategic port city of Hodeidah, allowing Houthi rebels to retake key positions there, Yemeni officials and the United Nations said.
The pro-government Joint Forces fighters, founded and bankrolled by the United Arab Emirates, said late on Friday they had redeployed troops away from Hodeidah because there was a ceasefire deal in place there since 2018.
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“The joint forces recognised the mistake of remaining in defensive barricades, unable to fight under an international pact, while various front lines require support,” they said in a statement.
A UN mission observing the ceasefire said it had not been notified before the withdrawal and that pro-government forces pulled back from their positions in Hodeidah, Yemen’s main entry point for imports and aid, and south of the city, allowing the rebels to take over.
On Saturday, security officials and residents said the Houthis rounded up dozens of people they accuse of supporting the government.
Meanwhile, other pro-government forces that remain in the Hodeidah governorate repelled a Houthi attack south of the city, the officials said. At least three pro-government officers, including a field commander, were killed, they added.
The officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk to the media, and the residents did so for fear of reprisals.
Fighting erupted in Hodeidah in mid-2018 after government forces backed by the coalition moved in to wrest control of the strategic port from the Houthis. After months of clashes, the warring sides signed the ceasefire deal in December that year and agreed to an exchange of more than 16,000 prisoners.
The deal – seen as an important first step towards ending a conflict that has devastated Yemen – was never fully implemented and the Joint Forces have accused the Houthis of repeatedly violating the 2018 deal.
Yemen’s war began with the 2014 takeover of the capital of Sanaa by the Houthis, who control much of the country’s north. A Saudi-led coalition – which included the UAE – entered the war in 2015, determined to restore the government and oust the rebels.
The conflict has since become a regional proxy war that has killed tens of thousands of civilians and fighters. The war also created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, leaving millions suffering from food and medical care shortages and pushing the country to the brink of famine.
In recent months, the Houthis have attacked government forces in different areas, including the provinces of Shabwa, Bayda and Marib, despite calls by the UN, the United States and others to stop fighting and engage in negotiations to find a settlement to the conflict.
Government forces pushed back the rebels in fierce battles south of the crucial city of Marib, the provincial capital, officials from both sides said on Saturday.
As part of intensified efforts to end the war, Washington has pressed Riyadh to lift restrictions by coalition warships on Houthi-held ports, a condition from the group to start ceasefire talks.
The blockade is a significant factor in Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.