Yemenis fear collapse of UN-backed ceasefire accord

The UN says the conflict has killed some 10,000 people and brought 14 million to the brink of famine. (AFP pic)

HODEIDA: Residents of Yemen’s flashpoint port of Hodeida and other cities fear a UN-brokered ceasefire could collapse at any moment, saying that after four years of conflict any accord is deeply fragile.

On Friday morning, a day after the breakthrough agreement was penned in Sweden by representatives of the Yemeni government and the Huthi Shiite rebels, many held their breath.

The Red Sea port of Hodeida, a main frontline between rebels and loyalist forces backed by a Saudi-led military coalition and key conduit of aid, had woken to calm after weeks of confrontation.

But hours later scattered clashes broke with artillery and machinegun exchanges heard through the south and east of the city, residents said.

It was the first test of the fragile ceasefire.

Saturday morning saw calm return to Hodeida, but shops and schools remained shuttered as gunmen deployed in the south and east.

“I was so happy they had reached a solution for Hodeida but our happiness was short lived,” 28-year-old Hodeida resident Noha Ahmad told AFP after the clashes.

Omar Hassan, 40, said residents of the beleaguered city have been “desperately waiting for calm and security to be restored”.

“Now we are afraid that clashes will return and persist,” he said.

Thursday’s ceasefire accord has been seen as the most significant step towards ending Yemen’s devastating conflict, but analysts warned its success depends on sustained international pressure.

Under the terms of the accord, an “immediate” ceasefire must be implemented in Hodeida and fighters are due to withdraw in the next few days.

A prisoner swap involving some 15,000 detainees is planned and a “mutual understanding” struck to facilitate aid deliveries to Yemen’s third city Taiz — under control of loyalists but besieged by rebels.

The two sides also agreed to meet again in late January, for more talks to define the framework for negotiations on a comprehensive peace settlement.

‘Treacherous enemy’

But for some Hodeida residents Thursday’s hard-won accord will come to nought.

“We don’t expect the enemy to abide by the agreement because the enemy is treacherous and not peaceful,” said Mohammed Abdo, a fighter patrolling a Hodeida street and holding a rifle.

“Peace comes through guns,” he said.

Elsewhere in the city — in central and northern districts — it was business as usual on Saturday with markets thronged with shoppers, but even there residents were cautious.

“Truces are always broken and the current agreement could collapse at any second,” said a resident who declined to be identified.

Rebel-controlled Hodeida has been the target of an offensive launched by the Saudi-led coalition in June.

“The talks in Sweden were a positive step in light of the humanitarian hardships of Yemen and Hodeida in particular,” said shop owner Marwan Halissi.

But he too agreed that more should be done to cement the ceasefire, calling for a bigger UN role and more “pressure on coalition countries” to pave the way for a lasting settlement.

‘Ready and prepared’

In other parts of the impoverished Arabian Peninsula country, there were also concerns that the ceasefire struck in the Swedish city of Rimbo could be short lived.

In the rebel-held capital Sanaa, the ceasefire agreement was met with mixed emotions.

On Friday, the day of the main weekly Muslim prayers, clerics issued calls on citizens to enlist in the ranks of the Huthis, pro-rebel media reported.

The Huthis also issued a statement saying “we are prepared for any option and to retaliate against any violation by the enemy”.

Ismail al-Ghobeiri, strolling in a Sanaa market, struck a hopeful note.

“We hope that both sides will respect what they agreed on and, if this is done, then the next round of negotiations” due to be held in January, will have a chance, he said.

Further south in the loyalist-held second city of Aden, residents welcomed the ceasefire but hoped it would hold for the sake of war-weary civilians.

“We hope that the warring sides will think of the people who are on the threshold of despair,” said Hassan bin Attaf.

“We pray to God to calm everyone — politicians, military commanders and coalition forces — so that the ceasefire will hold and the war will stop,” he said.

The UN says the conflict has killed some 10,000 people and brought 14 million to the brink of famine in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Human rights groups say the death toll could be five times as high.