By DAVID KEYTON and BRIAN ROHAN, Associated Press
RIMBO, Sweden (AP) — The United Nations secretary general on Thursday announced that Yemen’s warring sides have agreed after week-long peace talks in Sweden to a province-wide cease-fire in Hodeida and a withdrawal of troops from the contested Red Sea port city.
Antonio Guterres thanked the Yemeni delegations for what he called “an important step” and “real progress toward future talks to end the conflict” and also said that the next round of talks is planned for the end of January.
The brutal four-year-old civil war pits the internationally recognized Yemeni government, supported by a Saudi-led coalition, against the Iran-backed rebels known as Houthis.
The fighting has produced one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, with 22 of Yemen’s 29 million people in need of aid, according to the United Nations. The two sides have for months been locked in a stalemated fight over Hodeida.
“This is just the beginning,” Guterres said, speaking at the closing ceremony for the talks in the Swedish town of Rimbo. He thanked the Yemeni parties “for coming here to discuss a better future for Yemen.”
The U.N.-sponsored talks had low expectations for halting the conflict immediately, but saw some progress with the agreement of a prisoner swap to include some 15,000 people at the start of the talks last week. The exchange is to take place by Jan. 20.
Both sides have said they sought to build on goodwill for future talks, although it was unclear how far they have come in agreeing on a draft agreement given to them a day earlier to consider by U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths.
Griffiths has said he wants to remove Hodeida from the conflict so that aid deliveries can operate freely.
On Wednesday, the U.N. raised expectations for progress in the talks saying that the U.N. envoy had given both sides a draft agreement for consideration.
The document consists of a set of proposals, including one for a political framework for a post-war Yemen, the reopening of the airport in the capital, Sanaa, and a proposal for Hodeida, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis dependent on international aid.
The government, which is supported by a Saudi-led coalition that has waged war against the Iran-backed Shiite Houthis, said the next round of negotiations could take place as early as January.
The U.N. draft proposal was not released to the media. A draft document obtained by The Associated Press earlier this week showed an initial 16-point proposal to stop all fighting and have all troops withdraw to the city limits of the key port of Hodeida, and later from the surrounding province of the same name.
The mounting humanitarian needs in Yemen, and outrage over the killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, have galvanized international support for ending the war. The United States, a backer for the Saudis, has called for a cease-fire and reduced some of its logistical aid for the Saudi-led coalition.
Also, an international group tracking the war said this week that the conflict in Yemen has killed more than 60,000 people, both combatants and civilians, since 2016.
The U.S.-based Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, or ACLED, said in a report Tuesday that more than 28,000 people — again both civilians and combatants — were killed in the first 11 months of 2018, an increase of 68 percent from 2017. More than 3,000 were killed in November, the deadliest month since ACLED started collecting data.
The group said 37 percent of the total number of civilians killed in Yemen in 2018 died in Hodeida. ACLED bases its figures on press reports of each incident of violence in the war.
ACLED’s figures also do not include the last few months of 2014, when Yemen’s Houthi rebels captured Sanaa and much of the country’s north, nor the casualties in 2015, when the Saudi-led coalition joined the war on the side of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s government.
Rohan reported from Cairo.