Thou­sands flee key Ye­meni port city as diplo­mats press for peace

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY ALI AL MUJAHED AND SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN sudarsan.raghavan@wash­post.com Raghavan re­ported from Cairo. Karen DeYoung in Wash­ing­ton con­trib­uted to this re­port.

SANAA, YE­MEN — Thou­sands of civil­ians con­tinue to flee the strate­gic port city of Hodeida while those re­main­ing are gripped by per­pet­ual fear of airstrikes, said res­i­dents and aid work­ers this week as diplo­mats press for a cease-fire and peace talks.

The of­fen­sive for Hodeida, launched last month, is widely seen as a crit­i­cal junc­ture in Ye­men’s three-year civil war pit­ting north­ern rebels against the Ye­meni gov­ern­ment, which is backed by a re­gional coali­tion led by Saudi Ara­bia and the United Arab Emi­rates.

The city’s port is a vital gate­way for food, medicine and other cru­cial sup­plies to rebel-held ar­eas in a coun­try gripped by the world’s worst hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis. A pro­longed bat­tle for the city of 600,000 res­i­dents could lead to the deaths and dis­place­ment of hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple, the United Na­tions has warned.

More than 121,000 res­i­dents have fled the city and other parts of the prov­ince since June 1, the U.N. said this week.

Those who re­main in the city are in limbo, un­sure when the fight­ing will reach their neigh­bor­hoods. The streets are mostly empty, as res­i­dents hunker down in­side their homes. Most shops and busi­nesses are shut­tered, res­i­dents said.

“We don’t know what the com­ing days will bring, but we pray that Al­lah will keep us safe,” said Mo­hammed Noori, 28, a res­i­dent in the east­ern part of the city, all of which is un­der the con­trol of the rebels, known as the Houthis.

The col­lec­tive fears per­sist even as the UAE, whose forces and al­lies are lead­ing the of­fen­sive for Hodeida, an­nounced a pause in its as­sault on the city to al­low time for U.N. en­voy Martin Grif­fiths to bro­ker a peace­ful res­o­lu­tion. On Wed­nes­day, Grif­fiths met with the Houthis’ lead­ers — talks he de­scribed as pro­duc­tive — and he briefed the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil on Thurs­day be­fore meet­ing in the com­ing days with the ex­iled Ye­meni gov­ern­ment.

Diplo­mats are also count­ing on the back­ing of Iran, which sup­ports the Houthis, in seal­ing an agree­ment that will even­tu­ally al­low the U.N. to con­trol Hodeida’s port.

Iran has been “very co­op­er­a­tive” in re­cent months on Ye­men, said a se­nior in­ter­na­tional diplo­mat in­volved in ef­forts to end the war who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss the sen­si­tive ne­go­ti­a­tions freely. Strug­gling against newly reim­posed U.S. sanc­tions, Tehran is “un­der pres­sure to show some­thing nice for the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.” In gen­eral, the diplo­mat said Ye­men was a “sideshow” for Iran and ba­si­cally just a way to ir­ri­tate the Saudis, who largely en­tered the war fear­ing that Iran is seek­ing to gain re­gional in­flu­ence through the Houthis.

“I think Iran is ready for an agree­ment” on Ye­men, the diplo­mat said.

Pre­vi­ously, he added, there had been a deal with both sides to al­low the U.N. to con­trol the Hodeida port, but it fell apart be­cause the Houthis in­sisted that they keep con­trol of the city of Hodeida. A se­nior Houthi leader on Thurs­day blamed the coali­tion for the lack of an agree­ment, say­ing that coali­tion forces have con­tin­ued their push to take the city.

“We don’t mind stop­ping the fight­ing in Hodeida in or­der to en­ter com­pre­hen­sive and com­plete ne­go­ti­a­tions,” said Saleem Mughalles, a mem­ber of the rebels’ po­lit­i­cal bu­reau. “How­ever, the coali­tion should stop the fight­ing there. The fight­ing is still on­go­ing un­til this mo­ment.”

On Thurs­day, aid agencies work­ing in Ye­men urged all sides to bro­ker a deal.

“U.S., Bri­tish, French and Ira­nian diplo­mats must do all they can to push the war­ring par­ties to co­op­er­ate with the U.N. en­voy in agree­ing on an im­me­di­ate cease­fire and a new round of peace talks,” Mo­hamed Abdi, coun­try direc­tor for the Nor­we­gian Refugee Coun­cil, said in a state­ment via email. “We can­not al­low a con­tin­ued bat­tle for [Hodeida] to take more in­no­cent lives of a peo­ple who have al­ready been through an un­bear­able amount of suf­fer­ing.”

On the ground, the fight­ing in­ten­si­fied this week in and around the city, although the sit­u­a­tion on the ground re­mained largely static, the aid group said, adding that the city “re­mains largely calm, but tense.” Fuel, gas, food and wa­ter are avail­able, but there are wide­spread black­outs, res­i­dents said. Some de­scribed Hodeida as a “ghost city.”

“There is no move­ment on the streets,” said Noori, the Hodeida res­i­dent. “Most fam­i­lies have left leav­ing only one fam­ily mem­ber in the house to pro­tect it from be­ing bro­ken into and looted. My fam­ily has left to [the cap­i­tal] Sanaa. I had to stay be­hind to take care of and pro­tect our house.”

Many shop own­ers have bar­ri­caded their stores with bricks to pre­vent loot­ing. Most restau­rants have closed, as have many money lenders, cre­at­ing a cash-liq­uid­ity cri­sis. The prices of sta­ple goods have soared.

“One of the big­gest prob­lems we are fac­ing is a lack of goods and medicines in stores,” said Naji Alrabasi, who heads a la­bor union. “When I asked some of the own­ers for the rea­son, they told me that most sup­pli­ers have stopped sup­ply­ing them. This is one of the rea­sons why prices have gone up so much.”

On many streets, the rebels have dug trenches and erected sand barricades, pre­par­ing for pos­si­ble street-by-street clashes against the coali­tion forces, res­i­dents said.

Even the prov­ince’s deputy gover­nor fled the city.

“I ex­pect more peo­ple to leave,” said Hashem Alaz’azi, who spoke from the city of Ibb, where he now lives with relatives. “The peo­ple in the city are suf­fer­ing, and it is ex­pected the suf­fer­ing will get worse.”

PHOTOS BY ABDULJABBAR ZEYAD/REUTERS

TOP: The port’s cranes rise above a nearby shan­ty­town in Hodeida, Ye­men, the cen­ter of a civil-war of­fen­sive. ABOVE: Peo­ple dis­placed by the fight­ing wait to re­ceive aid from U.N. agencies.

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