UNITED NATIONS -- Progress on implementing a cease-fire and withdrawing rival forces from Yemen's key port has been "gradual and tentative" and new talks between the warring sides won't take place until there is "substantive progress," the U.N. envoy said Wednesday.
Martin Griffiths told the Security Council that Yemen's government and Houthi Shiite rebels "have largely adhered" to the cease-fire in the port of Hodeida and surrounding area agreed to outside Stockholm, Sweden, on Dec. 13.
"This relative calm, I believe, indicates the tangible benefit of the Stockholm agreement for the Yemeni people and the continued commitment of the parties to making the agreement work," he said.
But Griffiths said progress on a pullout of rival forces, humanitarian access and other issues agreed to in Stockholm has been slow, and he called for stepped up efforts by both sides, saying "speedy implementation is crucial."
He urged both sides "to engage regularly and in good faith" with a U.N. monitoring team, which is in Hodeida under retired Dutch Maj. Gen. Patrick Cammaert to oversee the redeployment of forces, establishment of new security measures for Hodeida, and the opening of humanitarian access routes.
It was Griffiths' first briefing to the Security Council since its members voted unanimously on Dec. 21 to authorize the deployment of U.N. monitors to observe implementation of the Stockholm agreement for an initial period of 30 days.
Britain's U.N. Ambassador Karen Pierce told the council the United Kingdom will shortly circulate a technical resolution to extend the deployment, and is preparing a substantive resolution on an extended U.N. mission.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres proposed in a letter to the council on Dec. 31 that up to 75 U.N. monitors should be deployed for an initial period of six months to oversee the cease-fire and demining of Hodeida and the smaller ports of Salif and Ras Isa, and the redeployment of forces.
He said the mission, led by Cammaert, should also work with the government and Houthis to assure security in the three ports by local security forces, he said.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said there are currently about 20 monitors in Yemen, stressing that their deployment also hinges on the security situation which he called "fairly delicate, to say the least."
While the cease-fire and pullout of rival forces are limited, the agreement, if fully implemented, could offer a potential breakthrough in Yemen's four-year civil war that has brought the Arab world's poorest country to the brink of starvation and created the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told the Security Council that the humanitarian situation in Yemen hasn't improved since the Stockholm agreement and "remains catastrophic," with 80 percent of the population — over 24 million people — now in need of assistance.
"They include nearly 10 million people just one step away from famine," he said, adding that more than 3.3 million Yemenis have been forced to leave their homes, "over 600,000 of them in the last 12 months."
Griffiths said in a video briefing from Amman, Jordan that while reaching the Stockholm agreement was difficult, "it was the easy part."
"Progress on implementation has been gradual and tentative, but it has made a tangible contribution to peace," he said. "There are doubtless many hurdles to be overcome in the days, weeks and months ahead, but the parties must not be diverted from their commitments."
On other commitments, Griffiths said the U.N. is working with both parties to finalize lists of some 15,000 prisoners to be exchanged by Jan. 20 under the Stockholm agreement.
The U.N. will hold a meeting in Amman, Jordan on Jan. 14 on the prisoner exchanges, he said, and "I hope these talks will allow many thousands of prisoners to go home and be reunited with their families."
Griffiths said both sides agreed in Stockholm to address the violence in Taiz — one of Yemen's largest cities which he said holds "enormous historic significance" for the whole country — and have nominated members of a joint committee.
Griffiths has said he would convene a new round of talks between the government and the Houthis in January but that now seems unlikely.
Griffiths said he is working with the Houthis and the government to make sure the next round of talks "will happen at the earliest possible date," and that those consultations will not only monitor progress on the Stockholm agreement but discuss "the fundamental issues that need to be addressed to resolve this conflict."
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia backed an expanded U.N. mission and said "an improvement in the overall atmosphere in the region ... could really help to solve the situation in Yemen and other crises in the Middle East and northern Africa."
"The policies of confrontation and aggressive competition must give way to dialogue and mutual understanding," he said, calling on the council to help regional players start this by creating "a unified security architecture."