A United Nations-brokered ceasefire deal has come into effect in the strategic Yemeni city of Hodeidah, but reports say sporadic fighting is still taking place in the embattled port.
After a week of consultations in the Swedish town of Rimbo, representatives from the Houthi movement and the Saudi-UAE-backed government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi on Thursday agreed to pull back their fighters to allow the deployment of UN-supervised neutral forces and the establishment of humanitarian corridors.
According to Yemeni officials and residents, intense fighting erupted in the final hours before the ceasefire took effect at midnight local time (21:00 GMT), with artillery shelling and heavy machine gun fire shaking districts in the south and east of the key city.
The clashes between pro-government forces and Houthi rebels appeared to have subsided in the early hours of Tuesday as the truce was implemented. Yet, the intermittent sound of machine guns was reportedly still heard in parts of the city, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis on the brink of starvation. A pro-government official told AFP news agency that sporadic clashes were ongoing in the east of the city, which has been held by the Houthis since 2014.
“Few expected the ceasefire to hold from the beginning – that’s why we’ve seen clashes in the eastern and southern parts for the past four days,” said Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Adow, referring to the fighting and air raids that hit Hodeidah in the days following the agreement in Sweden.
“And just moments after the ceasefire came into effect, residents said there was an exchange of gunfire and missiles in the eastern part of the city,” added Adow, who has covered Yemen’s conflict extensively.
“Of course, this just shows the deep-seated suspicion between the two groups and how dicey the whole situation in Hodeidah is.”
According to the UN, both parties will withdraw from the city within 21 days and international monitors will be deployed.
A prisoner swap involving about 16,000 inmates is also expected to be completed before January 20.
As part of the agreement, the three ports of Hodeidah, Ras Isa and Saleef will fall under the control of “local forces”, who would then send the ports’ revenues to the country’s Central Bank.
Yemen’s Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani declined to specify whether the forces would be solely state security forces but said they would report to the “central authority”.
The Central Bank will then begin paying the salaries of government employees in Houthi-held areas. As many as 1.2 million civil servants have not received their salaries in nearly two years, leaving health, education and sanitation services without the people and resources needed to keep them running.
Al Jazeera’s Adow said there are several obstacles that could prevent the “vaguely worded” agreement reached in the UN-backed talks in Sweden from working on the ground.
“For example, it doens’t say who are going to be the neutral forces that are supposed to take over once these militias from both sides leave the city,” he said.
“It’s also been suggested that the two groups will form joint units – which is almost impossible – and then there is a plan for the Houthis to hand over a map of the city showing landmines, improvised explosive devices, as well as booby trapped compounds and where they are – something that could prove to be a stumbling block.”
Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, has been devastated by a multi-sided conflict involving local, regional and international actors.
The conflict began with the 2014 takeover of the capital, Sanaa, by the Houthis, who toppled the government of Hadi. A Saudi-UAE-led coalition allied with Yemen’s internationally recognised government has been fighting the Houthis since 2015.
Since then, more than 60,000 people have been killed in the fighting, according to estimates by rights groups, and as many as 85,000 children may have starved to death.
Speaking on Sunday at an event in the Qatari capital, Doha, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that if Yemen’s humanitarian situation did not improve, 14 million people would need of food aid in 2019, six million more than this year.
“There is a high level of hunger in Yemen,” he said.
“The fact that famine was not yet declared does not in any way diminish our huge concern with the very high level of hunger that exists in Yemen with a number of people dying in very dramatic circumstances.”