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On 15 May the Houthis withdrew troops from Hodeidah, Ras Issa and Salif, the Red Sea ports at the centre of the struggle to control Yemen.

The move was a partial implementation of the peace deal reached in December 2018 in Sweden, and was welcomed by the UN. The Stockholm Agreement also calls for prisoner swaps and a new joint committee to deal with the fight for the city of Taiz but, until now, it has gone largely unimplemented.

Some fighting has continued in the city of Hodeidah, however, and the internationally-recognised Yemeni government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi says that the rebel militia still has disguised fighters in the city. The Hadi government side also says that the Houthi withdrawal violates the Stockholm Agreement because it is unilateral.

The UN must now set up a functioning security force in Hodeidah, something that has been difficult in negotiations, and a port authority to oversee the import of humanitarian supplies – particularly food. At present, Houthi-controlled forces are handling security, something which the Hadi government side does not accept.

At the same time as withdrawing from Hodeidah, Houthi forces launched drone attacks against oil industry targets in the Saudi Eastern Province. The drones, with a much longer range than previously used in the conflict, were almost certainly deployed with technical help from Iran and Hezbollah. The Houthis said they also got assistance from Shiite Saudi citizens in the Eastern Province.

Given the increasing tensions between the US and Iran, the drone strikes against US ally Saudi Arabia are particularly significant, although some commentators argue that Iranian influence on Houthis strategy is “sharply limited”. In May 2019 the Saudis reported sabotage to Saudi oil tankers in the Gulf and on 16 May the Saudi-led coalition conducted retaliatory air strikes against Houthi positions. Further rocket or drone attacks against Saudi and UAE targets seem likely, and will do nothing to damp speculation about a drift towards war between the US and Iran.

Meanwhile, the World Food Programme warns that 16 million people – more than half the population – wake up hungry every day. The collapsing economy is in danger of killing more people than the violence, especially given the access problems that prevent agencies reaching suffering people.

The International Crisis Group welcomed the withdrawal, organised by UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths: “While it should not be mistaken for a major breakthrough, his achievement is significant and should be warmly welcomed.” The ICG called on UN Security Council members to back Griffiths and maintain pressure on all sides to fulfil their commitments in the Stockholm Agreement.

Asked in Parliament in May 2019 what it is doing to support the Stockholm Agreement, the UK government said:

The UK has played a central role in diplomatic efforts to seek a peaceful solution to the conflict in Yemen. Most recently, the Foreign Secretary hosted the Yemen Quad in London on 26 April, bringing together representatives from the US, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where members discussed the next steps in the UN-led peace process and how best to support the efforts of UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths. We will continue discussions with partners on how the UN Security Council can support the UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths on the political process and improving the humanitarian situation, central to which is the full implementation of agreements reached during the Stockholm talks. We welcome reports that Houthis forces have begun their withdrawal from the ports of Hodeidah, Saleef and Ras Issa and await independent verification of this by the UN.

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