Yemen’s Houthi rebels are preparing to withdraw from a key strategic port, in the first major step since a ceasefire agreement signed in December.
Both the Houthis and government forces agreed to withdraw from Hudaydah port to allow in vital humanitarian aid.
That process finally began on Saturday, with signs that Houthi forces were pulling back. The withdrawal was expected to take four days in total.
At least 6,800 civilians have died in Yemen’s four-year civil war.
Some 10,700 more have been injured in the fighting, according to the United Nations, and many thousands more have died from preventable causes such as malnutrition, disease and poor health.
The UN has yet to confirm whether the withdrawal has begun, a process described by its special envoy for Yemen as a “first step”.
“I’m hopeful, but it’s a fragile vessel,” Martin Griffiths told the BBC. “We have still got a job to do to make sure the government of Yemen is eventually happy with it.”
But Al-Hasan Taher, a senior pro-government official, accused the rebels of staging a “new ploy” by handing the ports to themselves, AFP news agency reported.
Why is Hudaydah so important?
Hudaydah port is the principal lifeline for two-thirds of Yemen’s population. Its closure has had a devastating impact on the nation, which now sits on the brink of famine.
Under the deal brokered by the UN in December, the warring parties agreed to withdraw from Hudaydah city and the ports of Hudaydah, Salif and Ras Issa.
A unilateral decision by the Houthi forces to withdraw from Hudaydah marks the first major step in bringing that ceasefire agreement into being.
The UN has repeatedly appealed to both sides for access to a vast store of grain in Hudaydah port that holds enough food to feed 3.7 million people for a month.
Aid workers have been unable to reach the stores for five months, and the UN previously warned that the grain was at risk of rotting.
Why is Yemen at war?
The conflict has its roots in the failure of a political transition after an Arab Spring uprising that forced its longtime authoritarian President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to hand over power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in 2011.
The Houthi movement, which fought a series of rebellions against Mr Saleh during the previous decade, took advantage of the new president’s weakness to take control of their northern heartland of Saada province and neighbouring areas.
Many ordinary Yemenis supported the Houthis, and in late 2014 and early 2015, the rebels took over the capital Sanaa, forcing President Hadi to flee abroad.
Alarmed by the rise of a group they saw as an Iranian proxy, Saudi Arabia and eight other Arab states intervened in an attempt to restore the government.
Talks have repeatedly stalled and broken down, and withdrawal deadlines have been missed amid disagreements over who would control the vacated locations.