Yemeni rebels have said they are ready to mobilise more fighters to the frontline despite a lull in battleground Hodeida, as the UN envoy prepares to visit the country to boost peace efforts.
Dozens of Huthi rebels put on a show of strength on the outskirts of the capital Sanaa on Saturday, apparently getting ready to head towards Hodeida, a Red Sea city home to a vital port.
Men, some of whom looked very young, were lining up with bandoliers around their shoulders and rifles in their hands, chanting the Huthi slogan: “God is greatest. Death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory to Islam.”
Residents told AFP by telephone on Sunday that relative calm had held in Hodeida city since pro-government forces — backed by a Saudi-led military coalition — announced a pause in their offensive last week amid international calls for a ceasefire and UN-led peace efforts.
They added however that they remain on edge as the sound of coalition jets can constantly be heard overhead.
UN special envoy Martin Griffiths said on Friday that he plans to travel to rebel-held Sanaa in the coming week to finalise arrangements for peace talks to take place in Sweden soon.
– ‘Ready to fight’ –
Hameed Assem, a member of the rebel delegation expected to take part in the negotiations, said that Huthis will continue to mobilise if UN efforts for peace fail to materialise.
“We are ready for dialogue at any time when there is real dialogue that leads to peace,” he told AFP.
“If Griffiths comes, we are ready for dialogue. If he doesn’t come, we are ready to fight until (our) last breath.”
Diplomatic efforts to end the war intensified last week after clashes escalated in Hodeida, whose port serves as an entry point for nearly all of the country’s commercial imports and humanitarian aid.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has warned the destruction of the Hodeida port could trigger a “catastrophic” situation in a country where 14 million people are at risk of starvation.
Pro-government forces on Wednesday suspended their 12-day offensive on the rebel-held city amid an international outcry, but the Huthis are sceptical about the move.
“The so-called truce is just a manoeuvre,” Shamsan Abu Nashtan, a rebel fighter, told AFP.
“The (Huthis) confirm they are ready to mobilise to the battlefronts.”
– Support for peace talks –
Griffiths — whose efforts at kick-starting peace talks collapsed in September — said Friday that both the Saudi-backed government and the Huthi rebels have shown a “renewed commitment” to work on a political solution and have given “firm assurances” that they will attend the talks. No date has yet been set.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, key members of the pro-government coalition, have both recently voiced their backing for UN-led talks.
The UAE state minister for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said on Wednesday his country welcomed the “early convening of UN-led talks in Sweden” and urged warring factions to take advantage of diplomatic efforts.
A day later, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said that the coalition was working with Griffiths to reach a political solution in Yemen.
“Saudi Arabia supports the envoy and his efforts to hold negotiations in Stockholm (at the) end of this month, November,” Jubeir said during a press conference.
The rebels seized the capital Sanaa and Hodeida in 2014, prompting Saudi Arabia and its allies to intervene on the government’s side the following year.
Nearly 10,000 people have been killed since then, according to the World Health Organization, in what the UN has called the worst humanitarian crisis.
Rights groups believe the toll may be five times as high.