Yemen's Shi'ite rebels criticized Britain's foreign secretary on Monday over comments about the flashpoint port city of Hodeida, saying Jeremy Hunt had misrepresented what the warring sides agreed on at U.N. peace talks in Sweden.
Hunt said during a visit Sunday to Yemen, the first by a Western foreign minister since the start of the conflict in 2015, that Hodeida “was supposed to be cleared of militia and left under neutral control by the beginning of January.” Hodeida is a key entry point for humanitarian aid to the war-torn country.
Mohammed Abdul-Salam, spokesman for the rebel Houthis, said that the December U.N.-brokered deal in Sweden never mentioned handing Hodeida to a neutral party. He said it stipulated that after warring sides withdraw, Hodeida would be patrolled by an unspecified “local force” with U.N. observers.
Abdul-Salam accused Hunt and Britain of siding with the Saudi-led coalition that backs Yemen's internationally recognized government in its four-year war against the Iran-backed Houthis.
Yemen's internationally recognized government and Houthi rebels agreed to a cease-fire in Hodeida in December to be followed by a redeployment of forces out of the port city which is currently controlled by the Houthis. Local authorities and police would run the city and its three ports under U.N. supervision. They also agreed on a prisoner exchange. But both deals have yet to take place.
Hunt warned of a collapse of peace deals, saying that “we are now in the last chance saloon ... The process could be dead within weeks if we do not see both sides sticking to their commitments in Stockholm.”
The U.N. said last month that both parties had agreed on the first stage of a mutual pullout of forces from Hodeida. But no progress has been made on the ground with both sides trading accusations of hindering the deals.
Yemen's government has been battling the rebels since 2014, when the Houthis swept down from the north and seized the capital, Sana'a. A Saudi-led coalition entered the war on the side of the government in March 2015. The stalemated conflict has killed tens of thousands of people and raised fears of famine.