UNITED NATIONS - The U.N. envoy for Yemen confirmed Wednesday that Houthi rebels have moved their military forces away from the critical Red Sea port of Hodeida, in a positive first step toward easing hostilities in the country's four-year civil war.
'The military forces of Ansar Allah have now left the three ports of al-Hodeida, Saleef and Ras Issa,' Envoy Martin Griffiths told a meeting of the U.N. Security Council, using the official name of the Houthi movement.
The redeployment - which was agreed to at intra-Yemeni talks in Stockholm in December - had been repeatedly delayed, but the first phase was finally carried out between Saturday and Tuesday.
Griffiths said the U.N. team monitoring the withdrawal said the Houthis were 'fully compliant' and 'very cooperative' during the process.
The pullback is significant, as Hodeida port has been a flashpoint in the conflict. Hodeida is the main point of entry for all commercial and aid supplies entering the country. Yemen imports 90% of all of its food.
Hodeida has been under Houthi control. Under the redeployment, the U.N. will now have full access to the ports, allowing its monitors to check ships docked there for any Houthi arms imports, which would be a violation of a U.N. arms embargo.
'Only the beginning'
Griffiths said the U.N. plans to improve productivity and efficiency of the port and will send teams in to upgrade berths and demine the outer perimeter of the port.
'This moment is significant, but this is only the beginning,' Griffiths told the council. 'These redeployments must be followed by concrete actions of the parties to deliver on their obligations under the Stockholm Agreement.'
He said that would include implementing subsequent phases of the mutual redeployments in Hodeida and ensuring that the U.N. will be able to increase its role in the ports. The United Nations plans to expand its monitoring presence in Hodeida.
The world body hopes that real progress in Hodeida could be the confidence-building measure needed to get the parties back to the negotiating table to discuss a political transition and an end to the war.
A Saudi Arabian-led coalition began bombing Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels in support of Yemen's government in March 2015. Since then, the U.N. estimates more than 10,000 people have been killed, mostly due to coalition airstrikes.