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Yemen war: Can ceasefire deal finally bring peace?

By Lyse Doucet
BBC chief international correspondent

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  • Yemen crisis
image copyrightEPA
image captionThe war has pushed millions to the brink of starvation
A ''forgotten war'' is now in the eyes of the world.
Beyond all expectations, a week of talks, brokered by the UN at a postcard-perfect Swedish castle, took Yemen a step closer to its elusive peace.
''Our collective achievements this week were a significant step forward," UN special envoy Martin Griffiths told the Security Council in New York the day after warring sides agreed a ceasefire in the vital Red Sea port of Hudaydah and its adjacent city.
But Mr Griffiths warned that ''what's in front of us is a daunting task... to turn the tide of war towards peace".
  • Why the battle for Hudaydah matters
  • Why is there a war in Yemen?
Yemen's tide can so swiftly turn.
Within hours of that rare burst of hope came news that sporadic battles had broken out on the eastern outskirts of Hudaydah.
The Stockholm deal, which reached agreements and understandings on a range of significant issues, is fragile and fraught with risk.
But it provoked a rare eruption of relief among Yemenis who dared to hope against hope the worst was finally over.
''Isn't this a special message for peace?'' a Yemeni woman activist exclaimed effusively in a message posted on social media.
It also comes at a time of mounting international pressure, especially on Saudi Arabia and its main Arab partner the United Arab Emirates, to help bring an end to a brutal war which has dragged the region's poorest nation to the brink of collapse.
The next hurdle is implementation, especially in Hudaydah, the ''centre of gravity'' in this nearly four-year conflict which pits the Saudi-backed Yemeni government against Houthis aligned to Iran.
''A robust and competent monitoring regime is not just essential, it is urgently needed, '' Mr Griffiths told the 15-member UN Security Council.
A monitoring mechanism, which would need the backing of a security council resolution, is being prepared and expected to deploy shortly.
''Trust is still incredibly low, and I suspect that all it will take is one small provocation and we could see the whole thing blow up,'' warns long-time Yemen watcher Peter Salisbury, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.
''More than anything, it needs constant attention from Griffiths and his team just to prevent a backslide."
''We'll be watching closely for the next four days,'' a member of the Yemeni government delegation told me. ''If the Houthis don't pull their forces out of Hudaydah by then, the entire deal will be dead. ''
The first phase of the ceasefire agreement commits Houthi forces who control Hudaydah to withdraw from the port, within days.
Subsequent phases will see forces from all sides leaving their positions in and around the adjoining city.
It's a major concession by the Houthis who have previously rejected ultimatums from the Yemeni government, and their Saudi and Emirati backers, to surrender all of this strategic territory on the Red Sea coast which provides a significant source of revenue.
Yemeni and Emirati forces have been inching forward and are now massed on the outskirts of the city.
''It shows that military pressure works,'' underlines the UAE's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr Anwar Gargash.
He told me that ''this agreement is not a small step. It is a big breakthrough".
But there are already grumblings of discontent.
A statement from the head of the Houthi delegation, Mohammed Abdul Salam, said his side had given ''too many concessions'' in the negotiations.
But he cited a ''humanitarian and moral obligation'' to implement the ceasefire in Hudaydah.
During the talks in rural Sweden, phones were ringing in many capitals.
In the crucial last day-and-a-half before agreement was reached, lines were burning between Washington and Arab capitals with American officials, including US Defence Secretary Gen James Mattis, urging allies to back this process.
Mounting pressure in the US has added political weight, including this week's Senate resolution to end US military support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and the widening fallout from the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The Senate also passed a resolution, with bipartisan support, condemning the killing and holding Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible.
''There's been an accumulation of pressure," admitted one Arab official.
"Yemen is now framed in a humanitarian narrative rather than a strategic one'' is how he put the growing alarm and outrage over the human cost of this confrontation.
image copyrightEPA
image captionHouthi rebels control the capital Sanaa
Saudi Arabia and the UAE had been pushing for a military victory in Hudaydah, seeing it as a game changer to end the war and curb the influence of their arch rival Iran whom they accuse of smuggling weapons through the port.
If this crucial ceasefire holds, more or less, it will help keep millions of people alive.
Two-thirds of Yemenis now rely on some form of food assistance, including 10 million ''who don't know where their next meal will come from".
Most of Yemen's aid, as well as its commercial imports, enter through this vital gateway.
''I can't tell you how relieved we are,'' remarked the UN's Resident Co-ordinator, Lise Grande, who called the truce ''the beginning of the end of a tragic senseless war.''
The humanitarian briefing to the UN Security Council which followed Mr Griffiths' s statement brought a stark warning.
The ''most detailed rigorous food security survey ever conducted in the country'' had confirmed Yemen's ''descent toward famine", emphasised UN Humanitarian Chief Mark Lowcock who implored ''the parties to continue to engage seriously with Martin's process, including implementing the agreements reached in Sweden. ''
This last round of talks, the first in more than two years, marked an achievement for Mr Griffiths's painstaking diplomacy.
He carefully reduced expectations by describing the Swedish sojourn as consultations, not talks. It would be a search for de-escalation, not a ceasefire.
The unexpected Hudaydah truce was not the only step forward.
Ceasefires were also agreed at the ports of Saleef and Ras Issa.
There was important progress on the mechanics of a mass exchange of prisoners, a deeply emotional issue for so many Yemeni families.
And there was an ''understanding'' on easing the siege on the south-western city of Taiz.
But progress fell short in other areas including opening the international airport in the capital Sanaa, which is under Houthi control.
It was a start, an historic start.
''This will be the first withdrawal of any forces in the history of this conflict,'' Mr Griffiths declared in the closing ceremony on Thursday, which even brought in UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to add to the sense of urgency.
Yemen's tortuous history means every step will be difficult, and dangerous.
But the hope now is that some steps will, at last, start moving in the right direction.

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  • Yemen crisis: The battle for Hudaydah