Talks on Yemen ceasefire break off without final agreement

UN says government and Houthi officials plan to meet again next week to finalise proposed troop withdrawal

epa07344757 Hadi Haig, representative of the Government of Yemen, looks on during a meeting with members of the Houthi delegation, in Amman, Jordan, 05 February 2019. The Supervisory Committee is due to discuss the steps taken by the government of Yemen and Ansar Allah, to finalize the lists of prisoners to be exchanged to advance the implementation of the agreement signed during peace talks in December 2018.  EPA/ANDRE PAIN

One part of a twin-pronged UN effort to push forward peace in Yemen failed to break the deadlock on Thursday as talks in Hodeidah broke off without any final agreement on how to redeploy rival forces as part of a stumbling ceasefire.

The head of the UN monitoring mission in Hodeidah, Major General Michael Lollesgaard, this week chaired discussions between government and Houthi representatives to try and preserve the limited truce, which has been undermined by numerous and persistent breaches by the rebels during the six weeks it has been in force.

A spokesman for UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said plans were being made for more talks between the two sides as although “challenges remain, not least because of the complex nature of the current frontlines” in Hodeidah, a compromise had been agreed in principle. The details, which were not disclosed, would now go to government and Houthi leaders for approval.

The talks about the withdrawal of all forces from the city and its three Red Sea ports started on Monday on a ship docked in the inner harbour of Hodeidah port, reflecting the high level of distrust between the two sides, who agreed to the ceasefire at UN-brokered talks in Sweden in December.

Major General Lollesgaard chairs the joint Redeployment Coordination Committee which was later established to ensure the ceasefire is fully implemented. Repeated promises to do so have not materialised, raising fears of an escalation in the conflict. The agreed ceasefire applies only to Hodeidah.

“To help overcome these issues, the RCC chair tabled a proposal that proved acceptable, in principle, to both parties to move forward on the implementation of the Hodeidah agreement,” the UN spokesman told reporters in New York on Thursday, confirming that this week's talks had ended.

“A preliminary compromise was agreed, pending further consultation by the parties with their respective leaders. The RCC chair expects to reconvene the RCC within the next week, with the aim of finalising details for redeployments.”

There is, however, deep scepticism about whether the ceasefire will come into full effect.

On Thursday the UN's humanitarian aid chief, Mark Lowcock, said the Houthis were still refusing to grant access to the Red Sea Mills in Hodeidah, which hold tens of thousands of tonnes of grain which is urgently needed to feed millions of starving people.

“Access to the mills grows ever more urgent as time passes and the risk of spoilage to the remaining grain increases,” Mr Lowcock said in a statement.

Last week, the Arab-led coalition that backs Yemen's government sent a letter to the UN Security Council that outlined hundreds of incidents where the rebels had breached the ceasefire.

The plan for talks on the ship to save the ceasefire was announced hours later.

“The negotiations came to an end because the Houthis are refusing to withdraw their forces from Hodeidah and the ports,” a Yemeni government official told The National on Thursday.

Meanwhile, negotiations on implementing a prisoner exchange that was also agreed in Sweden entered their third and final day on Thursday with no reports of any progress.

UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths had said he expected the two sides to agree upon a final list of prisoners to be released as a measure to build confidence between the internationally recognised government and the Iran-backed rebels.

During the opening session of the talks in Jordan on Monday, Mr Griffiths highlighted the importance of the swap deal to making progress on ending the four-year war.

An agreement would see the release of about 15,000 prisoners in total, but government officials question the rebels' commitment to the deal.

"The Houthis have suggested that only a partial amount of prisoners will be released – this was not part of the agreement," an official taking part in the talks told The National.

The government insists that all of the names it presented to the rebels be released immediately.

"We are ready to release all of the individuals proposed by the rebels, just as was agreed in Sweden," the official added.

The exchange is to be managed by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which says it could take weeks to complete.

The two sides swapped lists of detainees they want freed at talks in Amman last month, but mistrust has prevented them from finalising the list of names.

The government claims the rebels are not serious in wanting to conclude the deal and are deliberately hiding information about the fate of those detained in Houthi prisons.

The only prisoner exchange to take place so far was at the end of January, when the Houthis released a captured Saudi soldier and Riyadh released seven Houthi prisoners.

For weeks the government has been calling on the international community to pressure the Houthis to abide by the Sweden agreements.

“Yet they do not want peace and have been trying to sabotage the efforts made in Stockholm,” the official said.

The Sweden talks raised hopes of reaching a political solution to Yemen's war, which has left millions of people on the brink of starvation and dependent on aid to survive. The commitments made by both sides included opening up humanitarian corridors for all parts of the country to receive relief shipments, most of which arrive through Hodeidah.