Yemen's warring parties on Thursday agreed to a cease-fire on a vital port in a series of breakthroughs in UN-brokered peace talks that could mark a major turning point after four years of devastating conflict.
If implemented, the deal on the Hodeida port, a key gateway for aid and food imports, could bring relief to a country where 14 million people stand on the brink of famine.
In a highly symbolic gesture on the seventh and final day of the peace talks in Sweden, Khaled al-Yamani, the foreign minister of Yemen’s former government, and Houthi negotiator Mohammed Abdelsalam shook hands to loud applause – although both later voiced skepticism.
The two negotiators gave contradictory readings of the Hodeida deal shortly after the announcement by UN chief Antonio Guterres.
The week-long talks left a number of key issues unresolved. A new round of talks is scheduled for the end of January, with analysts predicting the US will continue to up the pressure on ally Saudi Arabia, a key backer of the former Yemeni government, to end the conflict.
Impoverished Yemen has been mired in fighting between Houthis and troops loyal to ex-president Abedrabbuh Mansur Hadi since 2014. But the war escalated in 2015 when a Saudi-led military coalition stepped in on Hadi’s side.
Withdrawal 'within days'
Under the Hodeida agreement, released on Thursday evening, an "immediate cease-fire" should come into effect in Hodeida and its three ports upon signing, followed by a "mutual redeployment of forces... to agreed upon locations outside the city and the ports".
The UN will play a "leading role" in management and inspections at the ports, for four years under Houthi control. The port will eventually be under the control of "local security forces" – a term the rival parties disagree on.
Yamani, who agreed to the deal in Sweden, declined to specify whether the forces would be solely state security forces said they would report to the "central authority" – the former government.
But the head Houthi negotiator said the phrase referred to the "security forces currently present in Hodeida" – the Houthis.
UN chief Guterres said the rivals had also reached a "mutual understanding" on Yemen's third city of Taiz, the scene of some of the most intense battles in the conflict, to facilitate the delivery of aid.
No deal has been reached on the future of the airport in the capital Sana’a or on economic measures needed to spare the population from further hunger.
Sanaa airport has been closed to commercial flights for nearly three years. The airport will be discussed at the next round of talks, UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths said.
Yamani said the deal was the biggest step forward since the outbreak of the war but remained "hypothetical". "We will wait and see," he said.
Abdelsalam said his group was "bound by an agreement".
Iran hails deal
Iran welcomed on Friday the initial agreements reached at talks in Sweden.
“Iran welcomes the agreement ... and hopes it will pave the way for the next round of dialog for concluding a final accord among Yemeni groups,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi said.
“The agreement is significant. The deal showed that the Yemeni groups involved in the talks had truly understood the deplorable conditions of the innocent and oppressed Yemeni people,” Qassemi said.
“Iran considers stopping of bloodshed and continuing Yemeni-Yemeni talks as the final solution for the situation in Yemen,” he said.
AFP and Reuters contributed to this story.