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Uneasy calm in Yemen's Hodeida as residents fear renewed violence

Yemeni pro-government forces patrol near the May 22 Hospital on the eastern outskirts of Hodeida on November 15, 2018
Yemeni pro-government forces patrol near the May 22 Hospital on the eastern outskirts of Hodeida on November 15, 2018 AFP

Hodeida (Yemen) (AFP)

Yemenis in battle-scarred Hodeida had a brief respite Thursday as the port city remained calm -- but many fear that a return to violence is only a matter of time.

Armed men roamed the streets of the rebel-held city on pick-up trucks and motorbikes Wednesday, some carrying rocket-propelled grenades, as civilians tried to go about their lives.

"Every time they announce a truce, something worse happens," said resident and mother of five Fatima Ali.

"The fighting stops for a period of time and then continues. I am worried about my children," the 45-year-old said.

Ali lives in the Ghalil neighbourhood near the Al-Thawra hospital in the south of the city, which was rocked by a series of explosions on Sunday.

Hundreds of medical workers and patients fled as battles approached the facility, prompting international outcry.

Pro-government forces on Wednesday suspended their 12-day offensive on the rebel-held Red Sea city, home to a vital port, as international pressure for a ceasefire ramped up this week.

But it was not the first time pro-government forces -- backed by a powerful Saudi-led military coalition -- have paused their offensive on Hodeida.

The coalition launched the assault in June.

It later halted its operations to allow for United Nations-backed peace talks -- but as the talks collapsed in September, it formally announced the offensive had resumed.

Younes Ahmed, who lives in a coastal neighbourhood of western Hodeida, told AFP he remains hopeful despite the convoys of tanks and trucks roaming the streets a few kilometres from his home.

"I hope that this is the end of it, because the hardest thing for me is to explain it to my children," said the 38-year-old.

"We have to be hopeful, as we are every time the fighting stops, but the reality of the situation is that this war will go on for a very long time."

His concerns are not without merit. Pro-government military commanders have said operations will resume if the Huthis attack.

Shops and schools in Hodeida opened Thursday, a day after loyalists announced the pause in their offensive.

Life is a desperate struggle for many in Yemen, where more than 22 million people -- three quarters of the population -- need humanitarian assistance.

Yemeni pro-government forces patrol near the May 22 Hospital on the eastern outskirts of Hodeida on November 15, 2018

owards eastern Hodeida, pro-government fighters last week took control of the city's top medical facility, the May 22 hospital, from which the rebels had forced out staff and set up sniper positions.

The wall of the hospital still bore a Huthi slogan: "God is great. Death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory to Islam."

- 'Humanitarian catastrophe' -

After nearly four years of fighting between Saudi and Emirati-backed pro-government forces and the Iran-aligned Huthi rebels, Yemen sits on the brink of famine.

Hodeida resident Marwan Abdelwaseh said he hopes for a political solution before his home witnesses a humanitarian catastrophe.

"We hope that the parties at war will reach a political agreement to hand over the city and spare it from destruction and war, especially since the supply routes for food, goods and gas have been cut," he said.

Hodeida's port -- the conduit for almost all of Yemen's imports and humanitarian aid -- has been under near-total blockade by the Saudi-led coalition, which accuses Iran of smuggling arms to the rebels.

Tehran denies the allegation.

Another Hodeida resident, Amjad Zaeem, said the city is now almost entirely isolated from the rest of the country.

"There are trenches and barricades inside and around the city," he said. "Hodeida is under internal and external seige."

UN mediator Martin Griffiths -- whose efforts at kick-starting peace talks collapsed in September -- has said he hopes to bring the warring sides to the table by the end of the year.

Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi voiced his backing on Thursday for UN-led talks to end fighting in Hodeida -- but vowed to "liberate" the city regardless, according to the official Saba news agency.

"The battle of the Yemeni people to liberate Hodeida is inevitable, whether through peace or war," the president's spokesman said.

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