RIMBO, SWEDEN / WASHINGTON - Yemen’s warring parties on Thursday agreed to a cease-fire on a vital port in a series of breakthroughs in U.N.-brokered peace talks that could mark a major turning point after four years of devastating conflict.
If implemented, the deal on the Hodeida port, a key gateway for aid and food imports, could bring relief to a country where 14 million people stand on the brink of famine.
In a highly symbolic gesture on the seventh and final day of the peace talks in Sweden, Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani and rebel negotiator Mohammed Abdelsalam shook hands to loud applause — although both later voiced skepticism.
The two gave contradictory readings of the Hodeida deal shortly after the announcement by U.N. chief Antonio Guterres.
The weeklong talks left a number of key issues unresolved. A new round of talks is scheduled for January, with analysts predicting the U.S. will continue to up the pressure on ally Saudi Arabia, a key backer of the Yemen government, to end the conflict.
Impoverished Yemen has been mired in fighting between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and troops loyal to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi since 2014.
The war escalated in 2015 when a Saudi-led military coalition stepped in on the government’s side.
Under the Hodeida agreement, released Thursday evening, an “immediate cease-fire” should come into effect in Hodeida and its three ports upon signing, followed by a “mutual redeployment of forces … to agreed upon locations outside the city and the ports.”
The U.N. will play a “leading role” in management and inspections at the ports, which have been under rebel control for four years. The ports will eventually be under the control of “local security forces” — a term the rival parties disagree on.
Al-Yamani declined to specify whether the forces would be solely state security forces but said they would report to the “central authority” — the government.
But Abdelsalam noted the phrase referred to the “security forces currently present in Hodeida” — the rebels.
Saudi Arabia and its allies accuse the rebels of arms smuggling from Iran through Hodeida and the capital, Sanaa. The Saudi- led military coalition currently controls Yemen’s maritime borders and airspace.Guterres said the rivals had also reached a “mutual understanding” on Yemen’s third-largest city, Taiz, the scene of some of the most intense battles in the conflict, to facilitate the delivery of aid. No further details were given.
No deal has been reached on the future of the airport in Sanaa or on economic measures needed to spare the population from further hunger.
Sanaa airport has been closed to commercial flights for nearly three years. The airport will be discussed at the next round of talks, U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths said.
Foreign Minister al-Yamani said the deal was the biggest step forward since the outbreak of the war but remained “hypothetical.”
“We will wait and see,” he said.
The rebels’ Abdelsalam said his group was “bound by an agreement.”
Analysts said the Rimbo talks progressed better than anticipated, two years after the last negotiations, hosted by Kuwait, collapsed with no breakthrough after three months.
“The Sweden talks have achieved more than anyone expected,” the International Crisis Group said.
“We have heard a different tone from the government of Yemen in these talks, and U.S. pressure has clearly focused minds in the Gulf.”
The case of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, along with the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, were the turning point for the U.S.
Both the rebels and government alliance are accused of failing to protect civilians. The U.N. last year blacklisted the Saudi-led coalition for the killing and maiming of children in air raids.
The U.S. Senate on Thursday sent a fresh warning to U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia by approving a resolution to end American military support for Riyadh’s war in Yemen.
The largely symbolic resolution cannot be debated in the House of Representatives before January, and would likely be vetoed in any case by Trump, who has repeatedly signaled his backing for the Saudi regime.
But the bipartisan vote sends a strong message to the White House over anger on both sides of the aisle toward Riyadh and the mounting civilian death toll in Yemen.
In a voice vote, with no opposition, the Senate also approved a resolution condemning Khashoggi’s murder and saying Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was “responsible” for it.
The Yemen ambassadors of core players in the conflict, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, were in Rimbo for the last day of negotiations. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt also met with both the government and rebels Thursday.
Saudi Arabia and its Arab coalition partners “strongly support” the agreement reached on Yemen, Riyadh’s U.S. ambassador, Khalid bin Salman, said.
“The agreement announced today will help bring back security to the region including the security of the Red Sea, a vital waterway for international trade,” the envoy, who is a brother of the crown prince, said on his Twitter account.
“The agreement is a major step towards alleviating the humanitarian crisis and reaching a political solution.”