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Air strikes, clashes hit Yemen's Hodeida despite ceasefire

By AFP
media Maps showing famine risk and internal displacement in Yemen. AFP

Clashes shook Yemen's flashpoint city of Hodeida Sunday after air strikes and deadly fighting on the outskirts overnight, residents said, despite a UN-brokered ceasefire between pro-government forces and rebels.

The warring parties exchanged accusations of violating the ceasefire accord that took effect on Friday but which quickly came under pressure.

A resident of the city reached by telephone said that the clashes were "fierce" and the sounds of jets could be heard throughout the night until about 5 am (0200 GMT) on Sunday.

Another resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also reported ongoing fighting in the city, home to a vital Red Sea port.

"There are sounds of jets and air strikes, but we don't know what they are targeting," he told AFP by telephone.

- Fighters killed -

At least 29 fighters, including 22 Huthi rebels and seven pro-government troops, were killed on Saturday night in clashes and air strikes in Hodeida province, a pro-government military source told AFP.

No other sources could confirm the death toll.

The pro-government source added that seven rebels were captured during a Huthi attack on Al-Durayhimi district, which lies about 20 kilometres (12 miles) south of Hodeida city.

According to the insurgents' Al-Masirah television on Sunday, there were ongoing clashes and air strikes in the city and its outskirts.

The fighting comes days after a UN-backed ceasefire came into effect, part of a hard-won accord struck in Sweden between the two sides.

The truce between Yemeni government forces, backed by a Saudi-led military coalition, and the Huthi rebels was due to be followed by the withdrawal of fighters from Hodeida within days on both sides.

In comments published Saturday on the rebel-run Saba news agency, the Huthis accused pro-government forces of shelling residential neighbourhoods in Hodeida city.

Thursday's ceasefire accord has been seen as the most significant step towards ending the devastating conflict in Yemen, where more than 14 million people are on the brink of famine.

- 'Peace is possible' -

The United States commended on Sunday the two sides that took part in the Sweden negotiations for "making progress on key initiatives", calling for a de-escalation of tensions.

"Moving forward, all must continue to engage, de-escalate tensions, and cease ongoing hostilities," the US embassy in Riyadh tweeted, echoing remarks by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday.

"This is the best way to give these and future consultations a chance to succeed.

"The work ahead will not be easy. Peace is possible. The end of these consultations can be the beginning of a new chapter for Yemen."

A prisoner swap involving some 15,000 detainees is planned and a "mutual understanding" has been reached to facilitate aid deliveries to Yemen's third city Taiz -- under control of loyalists but besieged by rebels.

The two sides also agreed to meet again in late January for more talks to define the framework for negotiations on a comprehensive peace settlement.

- Monitoring mechanism -

UN special envoy Martin Griffiths called for the urgent creation of a strong monitoring mechanism in Yemen.

"A robust and competent monitoring regime is not just essential. It is also urgently needed," Griffiths told the UN Security Council on Friday.

He added that "allowing the UN the lead role in the ports is the vital first step".

Diplomats said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres may propose a surveillance mechanism comprising 30 to 40 observers.

Some countries could send observers on a reconnaissance mission before the formal adoption of a resolution, diplomats said.

One diplomat suggested Canada and the Netherlands could field the observers.

UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock has for months been warning of a worsening situation in Yemen and says the UN is asking for $4 billion to help suffering Yemenis next year.

"Millions of Yemenis still desperately need assistance and protection," he said.

Impoverished Yemen has been mired in fighting between the Huthi rebels and troops loyal to President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi since 2014.

The war escalated in 2015 when a Saudi-led military coalition stepped in on the government's side.

The conflict has since killed nearly 10,000 people, according to the World Health Organization. But some rights groups believe the actual toll to be far higher.

 
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