UNITED NATIONS -- The U.N. envoy for Yemen announced Monday that the government and Houthi rebels have reached agreement on the military plan for the initial redeployment of forces from the key port of Hodeida.
Martin Griffiths told the Security Council by video link from Amman that "when — and I hope it is when and not if — these redeployments happen they will be the first voluntary withdrawals of forces in this long conflict."
He said agreement on the first phase of withdrawals was reached in negotiations between the parties and Lt. Gen. Michael Lollesgaard, who heads the U.N. operation monitoring a broader cease-fire and redeployment agreement reached in Sweden in December.
Griffiths called Hodeida, whose port handles about 70 percent of Yemen's commercial and humanitarian imports, "a test of many things," including leadership, and he expressed hope "that we shall see in the coming days the people's trust vindicated in this."
The conflict in Yemen began with the 2014 takeover of the capital, Sanaa, by the Iranian-backed Houthis. A Saudi-led coalition allied with the internationally-recognized government has been fighting the Houthis since 2015.
The fighting in the Arab world's poorest country has killed thousands of civilians, left millions suffering from food and medical care shortages, and pushed the country to the brink of famine.
Violations and lengthy delays in implementing the agreement reached in Sweden have been blamed by the U.N. and diplomats largely on the lack of trust. Nonetheless, there has been concerted international pressure on the parties to implement the Hodeida deal, which is widely seen as a crucial first step toward much more difficult negotiations to end the war.
A U.N. official has said the first phase of redeployment involves a pullback of several kilometers (miles) by the Houthis and coalition forces, and the second phase involves a withdrawal of 18 to 30 kilometers (11 to18 1/2 miles), depending on the location and fighters. In some places in Hodeida city, the opposing forces are facing each other about 100 meters (yards) apart, the official said.
Griffiths told the Security Council he was grateful to Yemen's President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who has repeatedly told him he wants "to see these redeployments happen," and to Houthi leader Abdul Malik at Houthi, who reconfirmed his support for the Hodeida agreement when they met in the capital, Sanaa, last week.
"We will now move with all speed towards resolving the final outstanding issues related to phase two and the status of local security forces," Griffiths said.
Nonetheless, he remained cautious.
Griffiths reminded the council that when he first briefed members almost a year ago he said "a political solution was available to resolve the conflict," but added "that at any time war can take the chance of peace off the table."
"Both these propositions hold true as much today as a year ago," Griffiths said.
The U.N. envoy said there must be progress in Hodeida before moving to focus on the political solution, but he also told the council he would be "derelict" if he didn't prepare the groundwork for political consultations.
U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told the council that while the cease-fire in Hodeida has largely held, "we have seen a pronounced escalation of violence in other parts of the country," especially in Hajjah, just north of Hodeida.
He said front-lines are now just a few kilometers from the main water source in Hajjah's Abs District, which serves about 200,000 people, and if fighting damages or cuts off the facility "we could very quickly see a major catastrophe." If fighting moves south to the Hodeida border, "up to 400,000 more people could be displaced," he added.
Lowcock stressed that there is a "continuing and very real risk of famine," and that humanitarian agencies are confronting "an alarming resurgence in the cholera epidemic that we have successfully rolled back last year." Nearly 200,000 suspected cases have been reported so far this year — almost three times as many as in the same period last year, he said.
In addition, Lowcock said, more than 3,300 diphtheria cases have been reported since 2018, the first outbreak in Yemen since 1982, and new measles cases surged earlier this year to nearly twice the levels reported at the same time in 2018 — "itself a record-breaking year."
The U.N. World Food Program is delivering emergency food assistance to more than 9 million people every month and intends to increase this to 12 million people, Lowcock said. But four months into 2019 the U.N. appeal has received only $267 million — about 10 percent of the $2.6 billion pledged in February, just 6 percent of what is needed, and "80 percent less than what we had at this point last year."
"I implore all our donors to convert their pledges into cash as quickly as possible," he said.
Virginia Gamba, the U.N. envoy for children and armed conflict, told the council that more than 3,000 children were recruited and used in the Yemen conflict between April 2013 and the end of 2018, and more than 7,500 children were killed and maimed.
Of the more than 3,000 recruited, almost 40 percent were used in active combat, half of them under the age of 15, she said.
Of the more than 7,500 casualties, Gamba said, one-third were girls.
She said almost half the deaths and injuries to children were caused by airstrikes, "for which the coalition bears the main responsibility." She said 40 percent of the casualties were the result of ground fighting and the Houthis were responsible for the majority, followed by Yemeni government forces.