SANAA, YEMEN - A senior Houthi rebel leader in Yemen said Tuesday that his group will not give up the key port city of Hodeida, the focus of months of U.N.-brokered talks with the government.
Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, the head of the rebels' Supreme Revolutionary Committees, accused his rivals from the internationally-recognized government of misinterpreting the deal. He says the Houthis have agreed to withdraw their forces but will remain in control.
He said the Saudi-backed government "couldn't get (the port) by force and they won't seize it by tricks."
"We agree on the redeployment according to the presented mechanism, but withdrawal as they are promoting, is impossible," he said in an interview conducted in undisclosed location in Sanaa, after relocating to avoid airstrikes.
Hodeida is the main entry point for humanitarian aid to Yemen, where nearly four years of war has spawned the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
The two sides have agreed to withdraw their forces from the port, but are divided over who will run it once they pull out. The U.N.-brokered deal was vague on that point, saying a "local force" would take over without specifying who would lead it.
U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths said Tuesday "significant progress" has been made on the withdrawal of forces from Hodeida.
He said in a statement that "operational details" of the agreement on phase one of the redeployment will be presented to a U.N. committee shortly. Griffiths said he looks forward to the committee's "swift endorsement of the plan."
A mutual pullout from Hodeida, which handles about 70 percent of Yemen's imports, and the two smaller ports of Salif and Ras Issa, was agreed to in Sweden in December and was seen as an important first step toward ending the conflict.
But a lack of trust between the government and the Houthis hampered agreement on details of the withdrawals. Each side has accused the other of violating the Hodeida cease-fire, and fighting has continued in other parts of the country.
"This is a process that will take a lot of patience so I don't want to sound over-confident about this, but any progress in getting the parties to agreement is welcome, and that is why today's developments are welcome and a positive step forward," U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said.
"Whether we can get to the final step of actually having the withdrawals occur, that remains to be seen," he added.
The conflict in Yemen began with the 2014 takeover of the capital, Sanaa, by the Iranian-backed Houthis. A Saudi-led coalition allied with the government has been fighting the Houthis since March 2015.
The fighting in the Arab world's poorest country has killed an estimated 60,000 people and left millions suffering from food and medical care shortages. U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock has said about 80 percent of Yemen's population — 24 million people — need humanitarian assistance, including nearly 10 million "just a step away from famine" and nearly 240,000 "facing catastrophic levels of hunger."
Last month, Griffiths said that forces will initially be withdrawn from Salif and Ras Issa, followed by a pullout from Hodeida and critical parts of the city. That would allow access to the Red Sea Mills, a major U.N. storage facility holding enough grain to feed 3.7 million people for a month.
The U.S.-backed and Saudi-led coalition allied with the government views the Houthis as an Iranian proxy. A U.N. panel of experts said earlier this year that Iran finances the war through illegal oil shipments to rebels. Both Iran and the Houthis deny Tehran has armed them.
Al-Houthi, who is considered the deputy leader of the movement, denied the rebels receive any aid from Iran, saying only that they have shared goals.
He said there was still a "big chance for peace" but only if the other side is committed to it.
"My message is that there is a big chance for peace despite the terrorism we face." But, he added, "if you decide to go for war, you will find us fierce warriors."