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The first step in a long-delayed plan for a withdrawal of rebel forces from Yemen's embattled Hodeida port has gone to plan, according to U.N. officials.
Day one of the process seen as vital to maintaining a tenuous cease-fire, during which Yemen's Houthi forces have started withdrawing from three of Yemen's Red Sea ports, went "in accordance with established plans," the head of a UN monitoring mission said on Sunday.
The development marks the first concrete step since a fragile U.N. cease-fire agreement was brokered between the war-ravaged nation's rival parties last December.
"All three ports were monitored simultaneously by United Nations teams as the military forces left the ports and the Coast Guard took over responsibility for security," Lt. Gen. Michael Lollesgaard, head of the U.N.'s Redeployment Coordination Committee, said in a statement.
The withdrawal process is crucial in allowing desperately needed humanitarian aid through the strategic port of Hodeida, which serves about 70% of Yemen's population.
Hodeida city has been under the control of the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who overran Yemen's internationally-recognized government in early 2015. The city was the target of a major Saudi and Emirati assault in mid-2018, an escalation of which the cease-fire agreement aimed to prevent.
Many Yemeni government officials remain skeptical about the Houthis' sincerity, accusing the rebels of staging a ploy, while the Houthis have claimed commitment to the Hodeida deal and urged all parties to abide by it. The agreement mandates a mutual withdrawal from the port by both rebel and government forces, though is vague on who will run it beyond that.
The UN's Lollesgaard stressed that the rebel forces must fully carry out their withdrawal, which expects to be completed over three days. Fighting has continued in other parts of the country, in particular the southern province of Dhale.
The conflict in Yemen, which saw a Saudi Arabian-led coalition launch a prolonged bombing offensive against the country's Houthi rebel movement, has created what the U.N. deems the worst humanitarian disaster in the world, marked by tens of thousands of deaths and millions more facing starvation. Rights groups have pointed to both sides as responsible for war crimes.
The U.S. currently supports the Saudi-led coalition through intelligence, training and, up until recently, air refueling support, though both houses of Congress have now voted to end support for the Saudis in Yemen. The U.N. points to the Saudi air campaign as responsible for the vast majority of Yemeni civilian deaths.