Yemen war: UN anchors ship off Red Sea port for ‘neutral ground’ talks

Yemen peace talks were held on board a UN-chartered boat anchored in the Red Sea on Sunday in an attempt to find a neutral venue acceptable to both sides.

Patrick Cammaert, a retired Dutch general and head of the UN mission in Yemen, chaired the meeting on the ship moored off the port city of Hodeidah. Houthi rebel military officials had refused to meet in government-held areas in southern Hodeidah, citing security fears.

The dispute over the talks venue had prevented military leaders from the two sides meeting since 2 January. The first two meetings had been held in Houthi-controlled zones.

The meetings of the regional redeployment committee (RCC) are seen as critical to building on the UN-brokered agreement reached in Stockholm in December 2018 which aimed at Houthi fighters being redeployed out of Hodeida’s city and port. The agreement envisaged a new security force taking over the city, a move critical to preventing famine and to opening humanitarian corridors.

The UN mission, despite delays and setbacks, remains optimistic that progress can slowly be made, partly because external forces, including the US and Saudi, recognise that a purely military solution in Yemen might come at an unacceptable price.

On Saturday the UN ship picked up the Yemen government delegation then anchored overnight in Hodeidah port before taking on board the Houthi negotiators on Sunday.

The RCC is arguably the biggest prize to emerge from Stockholm, and if the dispute over its venue had continued the key institutional structure underpinning the ceasefire would have been in jeopardy.

The Red Sea port is the entry point for the bulk of Yemen’s imported goods and humanitarian aid, providing a lifeline to millions in the Arab world’s poorest country.

The Saudis and the United Arab Emirates are sceptical that the Houthis will abide by the Stockholm agreement, and cannot imagine Houthis voluntarily leaving a port that gives them access to revenue through imposing taxes, and control of food and commercial supplies.

A former British diplomat, Martin Griffiths, is the UN envoy charged with brokering the peace talks.