'Uneasy calm' in Yemen's Hodeida as combatants await UN truce team

Dubai (AFP) –


An uneasy calm returned to the battleground Yemeni city of Hodeida on Thursday after new overnight skirmishes as the warring parties await the promised deployment of UN staff to oversee a hard-won but fragile truce.

Military officials and residents have reported intermittent fighting between Saudi-backed government forces and Huthi Shiite rebels since a new UN-brokered ceasefire came into effect in the Red Sea port city on Tuesday.

A pro-government official told AFP that four loyalists were wounded on Wednesday night in an exchange of fire.

"The exchange of fire lasted for about half an hour, and there is uneasy calm this morning," he said.

The official added there has been intermittent fighting on a number of battlefronts in Hodeida province, including the districts of Hays and Al-Tuhayta.

Pro-government forces and Huthi rebels exchanged accusations on Thursday that the other side was violating the ceasefire agreement reached at talks in Sweden earlier this month.

The rebel-run Saba news agency said on Thursday that the loyalists targeted a "number of neighbourhoods in the city of Hodeida" overnight.

- 'Breathing down the neck' -

UN observers are due in Yemen to head up monitoring teams made up of government and rebel representatives tasked with overseeing the implementation of the UN-brokered ceasefire, under the auspices of a Redeployment Coordination Committee.

The UN chair of that committee, Patrick Cammaert, convened its first meeting by videoconference from New York on Wednesday "to discuss the general outlines of its work, including agreement of a code of conduct", UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

UN chief Antonio Guterres was "breathing down the neck" of officials to make sure the UN observers are deployed as soon as possible, Dujarric said.

He added that Cammaert will head on Thursday to Jordan's capital Amman, from where he will travel to the Yemeni capital Sanaa and Hodeida.

Brigadier Ahmed Al-Kokbani, a Yemeni government representative on the committee, told AFP that the observers' meeting with Cammaert covered the bases of the committee's work.

"Cammaert asked members of the team to work diligently in calming the situation and to reject any violations (of the truce deal)," he said.

The Saudi-led coalition said Wednesday that the hard-won ceasefire agreement will collapse if rebel violations persist and the United Nations does not intervene.

The Redeployment Coordination Committee's observers are due to oversee the withdrawal of the warring parties from Hodeida, including a rebel pullout from the city's docks that are the entry point for 80 percent of Yemeni imports and nearly all UN-supervised humanitarian aid.

The committee chair is expected to report to the Security Council on a weekly basis as part of a major diplomatic push that is seen as the best chance yet to end the four-year conflict.

The war between the Shiite Huthi rebels and troops loyal to President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi escalated in 2015, when he fled into Saudi exile and the Saudi-led military coalition intervened.

Since then, the war has killed some 10,000 people, according to the World Health Organization, although human rights groups say the real death toll could be five times as high.

The conflict has also pushed 14 million people to the brink of famine in what the United Nations describes as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.