By Mohammed Ghobari and Aziz El Yaakoubi
ADEN/DUBAI (Reuters) – The Saudi-led coalition has ordered a halt in its offensive against Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen’s main port city Hodeidah, three sources said on Thursday, in an apparent concession to Western pressure to end the war.
Key Western allies including the United States have been urgently calling for a ceasefire ahead of renewed U.N.-led peace efforts.
The nearly four-year-old conflict has killed more than 10,000 people and caused a humanitarian disaster that could potentially threaten millions of lives.
The Hodeidah offensive, which first began earlier this year and was re-launched last month after a pause of several months, aims to cut Houthi-ruled areas from their main supply route. The United Nations fears it could deprive millions of people already on the verge of starvation from access to food or medicine.
“The coalition has instructed forces on the ground to halt fighting inside Hodeidah,” said one pro-coalition military source. A source in another military force backed by the coalition confirmed the order.
A third non-military source with knowledge of the decision said the coalition was responding to international requests for a ceasefire to ensure the Houthis attend planned peace talks.
Hodeidah has become a key target for the Sunni Muslim coalition, trying to oust the Houthis since 2015 after they took control of the capital Sanaa and overthrew the government. The Houthis now rule over most of Yemen’s population, while the exiled government controls a section of the south.
Western countries have provided arms and intelligence to the Arab states in the alliance, but have shown increasing reservations about the conflict since the murder of U.S.-based Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul early last month.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, said on Thursday the kingdom supports U.N.-led peace efforts.
“We support a peaceful solution in Yemen and we support the efforts of the U.N. special envoy to Yemen,” Jubeir told a press conference, in which he separately said the Khashoggi case should not be politicized.
Coalition spokesman Colonel Turki al-Malki would not confirm the order to halt the offensive had been given, saying operations were ongoing: “Each operation has its own specifics and pace,” Malki told Reuters, without providing details.
Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a Houthi leader and member of its Supreme Revolutionary Committee, told Reuters the group had still not seen an official announcement about a cessation of hostilities and skirmishes continued in outer suburbs.
MISERY AMID CALM
Street battles have abated over the last three days and Hodeidah was calm on Thursday, residents said. Coalition warplanes have conducted intermittent air strikes, mostly in the evening.
“We heard some sporadic (mortar) shelling this morning, but it is very calm,” said resident Arwa Mohammed. “People have started to leave their houses and go outside. We don’t want the fighting to resume as our situation is miserable.”
Aid groups have warned a full-scale assault on Hodeidah, which handles 80 percent of the country’s food imports and aid supplies, could trigger a famine. Some 22 million Yemenis rely on aid, out of a population of 29 million. Almost 18 million are considered hungry and 8.4 million severely hungry.
The coalition abandoned its earlier attempt to capture Hodeidah last June without any gains amid concern about a humanitarian catastrophe.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which is leading military operations on the southern and western coast, may want to exit what has become a costly military quagmire, but peace talks will have to overcome deep mistrust among all sides.
U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths is trying to salvage talks between the warring Yemeni parties after the last round in September collapsed when the Houthis did not show up. He hopes to convene talks before the end of the year to agree a framework for peace under a transitional government.
Sweden is preparing to host consultations when the parties “are ready to talk”, said a source familiar with the matter. “I would describe the process as slightly positive. Steps have been taken during the last weeks towards peace talks.”
UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash has welcomed an early resumption of talks, saying on Twitter the alliance would raise the issue at a U.N. Security Council meeting on Friday.
“(The) coalition will urge all parties to take advantage of window of opportunity to restart political process,” he said.
The Saudi state news agency reported on Thursday that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the United States and Britain had formed a committee to address the economic and humanitarian situation in Yemen, including through possible support of its central bank.
(Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in ADEN and Aziz El Yaakoubi in DUBAI; Additional reporting by Johan Sennero in STOCKHOLM and Asma Alsharif in DUBAI; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous and Raissa Kasolowsky)