UNITED NATIONS -- The U.N. envoy for Yemen said Friday the momentum to end the country’s devastating five-year war is building, pointing to a nearly 80 percent drop in airstrikes nationwide in the last two weeks, a strengthened cease-fire in the key port of Hodeida, and the beginning of the kind of leadership needed to restore peace to the Arab world’s poorest nation.
Martin Griffiths told the U.N. Security Council that developments since infighting between the internationally recognized government and separatists in Yemen’s south in August “are beginning to produce results.”
In possibly the most important sign “that something is changing,” he said the dramatic reduction in airstrikes compared with the two previous weeks indicated “a reduction in the tempo of the war, and perhaps a move towards an overall cease-fire.”
Griffiths also noted that the cessation of missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia by Houthi Shiite rebels, which the group announced on Sept. 20, “has been sustained for a second month in a row.”
The conflict in Yemen began with the 2014 takeover of the capital, Sanaa, by Iranian-backed Houthis who control much of the country's north. A Saudi-led coalition allied with the internationally recognized government has been fighting the Houthis since 2015.
Fighting in Yemen has killed thousands of civilians and created the world's worst humanitarian crisis, leaving millions suffering from food and medical care shortages and pushing the country to the brink of famine.
The Associated Press reported last week that Saudi Arabia and the Houthis are holding indirect, behind-the-scenes talks to end the war mediated by Oman in the Gulf nation, quoting officials from both sides.
In his video briefing, Griffiths cited evidence of the leadership required to end the war in the Nov. 5 power-sharing agreement between Yemen’s government and southern separatists brokered by Saudi Arabia in the capital Riyadh.
“The prospect of a break-up of the state was real and frankly terrifying,” he said.
Griffiths said that during 86 days of negotiations leaders from both sides sat together and agreed to work for a greater cause and the Saudi leadership “praised them for their courage rather than criticizing them” for the length of time to reach a deal.
“It should serve as a catalyst to move Yemen swiftly towards settling this conflict through political means,” Griffiths said.
The U.N. envoy said there are also “continued positive signs” in implementing last December’s agreement on Hodeida, Yemen’s major port and most important entry point for international aid.
Griffiths cited this month’s agreement with the government on a new way to deposit taxes and customs fees for commercial oil and gas shipments that averted a crisis and allowed fuel ships to enter Hodeida.
He said the parties “have also strengthened their adherence to the cease-fire” in Hodeida by establishing a new “cease-fire enhancement and de-escalation mechanism” that reduced the number of security incidents in the Hodeida region by 40 percent. And he said the creation of five joint observation posts has led to an 80 percent reduction in security incidents in Hodeida city.
At the same time, Griffiths also expressed concern at increasing restrictions on the movement of U.N. personnel overseeing implementation of the Hodeida agreement.
U.N. deputy humanitarian chief Ursula Mueller told the council there has been “an alarming increase in violence and harassment targeting humanitarian workers” in areas controlled by the Houthis, as well as continuing attacks in the country.
She pointed to artillery shelling that hit a market in Saada two days ago, reportedly killing and injuring dozens of civilians, an attack that badly damaged a hospital in the town of Al Mukha in Taizz governorate two weeks ago, and reports of fishermen killed by airstrikes, shells landing on civilian homes and sites hosting displaced Yemenis, and land mines exploding and killing and injuring civilians.
“Despite these and other incidents, there are also some signs of progress,” Mueller said. “In October, there were fewer civilian casualties than any other month this year, while September was the year’s deadliest month for civilians.”
Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Karen Pierce, the current Security Council president, told reporters after closed consultations that followed the open meeting that council members welcomed the Riyadh agreement and believe “it’s an important step towards progress.”
There is “very strong support” from the council for Griffiths’ efforts to pave the way for the Yemeni parties to come together and “reinvigorate the inclusive, wider political process.”