Houthi rebels in Yemen say they have begun a withdrawal from three key strategic ports that serve as a vital lifeline for food and humanitarian aid into the war-torn country.
If seen through, the withdrawal from the Red Sea port of Hudaydah, a key gateway for humanitarian aid into Yemen, as well as the ports of Ras Isa and Salif, would represent the first practical step by forces on the ground to implement an internationally-backed ceasefire agreed to in December.
The pullout has yet to be confirmed by the United Nations, but according to Reuters, rebel forces began withdrawing from Hudaydah port on Saturday. Rebels also said they had begun leaving Ras Isa, a port used for oil, and Salif, used for grain, according to The New York Times.
Under a December agreement brokered by the U.N., Yemen's Saudi-backed government and Houthi rebels agreed to pull out from the ports to allow desperately needed aid into the country. The U.N. says the conflict in Yemen has created the world's worst humanitarian crisis. The country is on the brink of famine, and an estimated 80 percent of Yemenis, or 24 million people, are in need of aid, according to the U.N.
The closure of the port in Hudaydah has had a particularly severe impact on the country. In December, reporter Jane Ferguson told NPR, "This city port is the most important in the entire country. This is where at least 80 percent of the foodstuffs come in to the north of Yemen."
The U.N. has repeatedly appealed for access to a vast store of grain at Hudaydah port, which is enough food to feed 3.7 million people for a month. Aid workers were unable to reach the storage of grain for five months, and have warned that it is at risk of rotting.
The withdrawal of Houthi forces is expected to take four days. But according to The New York Times, "The United Nations envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, described the process as a 'fragile vessel.' "
Observers fear that if the withdrawal fails, the violence in Yemen could grow even more deadly. More than 10,000 people have been reported killed in Yemen over the last five months, bringing the war's death toll to over 70,000 since 2016, according to data collated by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
Britain's Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, tweeted there were "encouraging signs" in Hudaydah, with reports that Houthis were "beginning to withdraw (under UN supervision) from the Yemeni ports of Hodeidah, Saleff and Ras Issa."
"Vital this happens in full," Hunt said.
Encouraging signs from the worst humanitarian crisis in the world with reports that Houthis beginning to withdraw (under UN supervision) from the Yemeni ports of Hodeidah, Saleef and Ras Issa. Vital this happens in full. pic.twitter.com/QEI1AdaW73— Jeremy Hunt (@Jeremy_Hunt) May 11, 2019