Clashes between Houthi rebels and pro-government forces continued briefly on Tuesday morning in Hodeidah as a ceasefire deal took effect before calm befell the country’s flashpoint port city.
"Hodeidah is calm," colonel Wadah Al Dubaish, a spokesperson with the pro-government Al Amalikah Forces operating in Hodeidah told The National on Tuesday. "This state of calm and stability followed clashes that erupted between the Houthi militia and the pro-government forces just an hour before the ceasefire started functioning."
Shortly before the agreement was to take effect at midnight on Monday, Yemen’s internationally recognised government called on its forces to “cease fire in Hodeidah province and Hodeidah city”.
The Houthi rebels also said they would commit to the agreement.
The ceasfire was the result of an agreement reached at United Nations brokered peace talks held in Sweden last week. A UN official said the delay to the halt in hostilities was necessary for “operational reasons”.
An official in the Saudi-led coalition confirmed the timing, adding that details on implementing the truce deal “were not clear at the beginning”.
The coalition “has no intention of violating the agreement... unless the Houthis violate and dishonour it,” the official said.
Despite the ceasefire, tensions remain high in Hodeidah.
The Houthis reportedly suspect the ceasefire remains a prelude to a full-scale military assault on the city by pro-government forces. The rebels are reportedly continuing to reinforce defensive positions within the city.
The Houthis have reportedly brought in pro-Houthi police forces from northern provinces in Yemen, who the rebels hope will remain in Hodeidah under the guise of being a neutral force, even after the two sides withdraw their military forces as per the terms of the agreement reached in Sweden.
"Dozens of police cars been roaming the city, we aren't used to see such big numbers of police vehicles in the city," Samira, a female resident told The National on Monday.
In case of a collapse in the ceasefire, the Houthis are reportedly preparing “sleeper cells” in Hodeidah by creating weapons caches in abandoned houses, buying properties within the city, and paying residents to provide cover to rebels by vouching for them being locals.
"We have seen Houthi fighters transferring big boxes into residences of people who were displaced to other areas,” said Samira, who asked for her surname to be withheld for security reasons. “We think the boxes contained weapons and ammunition.”
Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy to Yemen, had hoped the ceasefire would end fighting in the Red Sea port and pave the way for talks next month on a political solution to the conflict.
Mr Griffiths said the deal, reached last week in Sweden, had been the result of significant political will by all sides. He singled out Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as an important figure leading to the breakthrough.
“UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres came to Sweden and spoke to the Crown Prince and [Yemeni President Abdrabu Mansur] Hadi, who were of critical importance in the last hours,” Mr Griffiths told CNN late last night.
“We had been working for months with the Security Council so we knew where we wanted to go but just needed the will to agree.”
He said he was pleased with the result and would try to convene more talks by the end of next month to start discussing a wider peace agreement.
Mr Griffiths said there would be no UN peace monitors in the coming days but he hoped they would arrive within a week. They will report to the UN Security Council.
A source in the Arab-led coalition told The National that Yemeni and international forces would abide by the ceasefire as long as the Houthi rebels did. But he warned breaches would be met with a strong response.
“The Hodeidah ceasefire deal is the best option for Yemen’s future and if the Houthis are serious then we’re serious, but if they provoke us we can respond accordingly with other means,” the source said.
“If there are lethal attacks or infiltration we will be forced to respond and we will not stand still.”
Yemeni officials have warned that rebels may not stop attacks at midnight as agreed to during peace talks in Sweden last week, and that they had been planning to hide weapons and fighters in and around Hodeidah.
So far, the UN has not publicly shared details on how the agreement will be monitored or enforced. But Mr Griffiths said that UN agencies had extensive plans in place.
Moammar Al Eryani, Yemen’s Information Minister, tweeted that the ceasefire deal would be phased and that the end to fighting would precede the Houthis handing over key centres – including the ports of Hodeidah, As Salif and Ras Issa – within 14 days.
The final phase is for both sides to withdraw from the city and its surrounding areas within 21 days.
The UN special co-ordinator for Yemen was unavailable to confirm the timeline yesterday.
The agreement reached on Thursday at peace talks in the Swedish town of Rimbo includes an “immediate ceasefire” in Hodeidah.
The city’s port handles 80 per cent of essential goods going into Yemen.
A UN source that the deal was pushed back until today because of “operational reasons”.
The delay came amid renewed clashes on the outskirts of Hodeidah city in the lead up to the deadline.
At least 29 fighters, including 22 Houthi rebels, were killed on Saturday night in Hodeidah province, a pro-government military source said.
“We will monitor and see if the Houthis will implement the Stockholm agreement,” Col Turki Al Malki, spokesman for the Arab coalition, said yesterday.
“The UN and international community are responsible for implementing the Stockholm agreement,” Col Al Malki said.
He said the rebels were under immense pressure to come to the negotiating table, but that they had breached deals in the past.
On Sunday, Yemen’s Foreign Minister, Khaled Al Yamani, urged the UN to make Houthi rebels respect the truce.
“We urge you to be tough when dealing with the Houthis to ensure their commitment to the agreement in Sweden, which includes a ceasefire and the full withdrawal of their militias from Hodeidah’s three ports and city,” Mr Al Yamani wrote to Mr Griffiths.
He warned that the Houthis should not be given the opportunity to exploit the period before the withdrawal of forces from Hodeidah. “They will continue to commit war crimes by looting and destroying the city,” Mr Al Yamani wrote.