By Mohammed Ghobari and Aziz El Yaakoubi
ADEN/DUBAI (Reuters) – The Saudi-led coalition has ordered a halt in its offensive against Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen’s main port city of Hodeidah, three sources told Reuters on Thursday, in an apparent concession to Western pressure to end the war.
Key Western allies including the United States have been urgently calling for a ceasefire ahead of renewed U.N.-led peace efforts. The nearly four-year-old conflict has killed more than 10,000 people and caused a humanitarian disaster in an already impoverished Yemen.
“The coalition has instructed forces on the ground to halt fighting inside Hodeidah,” said one pro-coalition military source. A source in another military force backed by the coalition confirmed the order.
A third non-military source with knowledge of the decision said the coalition was responding to international requests for a ceasefire to ensure the Houthis attend planned peace talks.
Hodeidah has become a key target for the Sunni Muslim coalition, which has been trying to oust the Houthis since 2015 after they took control of the capital Sanaa and overthrew the government.
Western countries until recently provided arms and intelligence to the Saudi-led coalition, but toughened their stance on Yemen after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul early last month.
The killing of Khashoggi sparked a global outcry and opened the kingdom to possible sanctions. It also prompted renewed scrutiny of the Saudi role in the conflict in Yemen, which is widely seen as a proxy war between Riyadh and Iran.
Coalition spokesman Colonel Turki al-Malki would not confirm the order to halt the offensive had been given, saying operations were ongoing in the Red Sea port city, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis suffering severe shortages of food and other basic goods and a key supply line for the Houthis.
The offensive, launched late last month, was the Sunni Muslim coalition’s second attempt to retake the city in order to cut the Houthis’ access to the port and force them to negotiate.
“Each operation has its own specifics and pace,” the coalition spokesman told Reuters, without providing details.
Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, head of the Houthi group’s leading body, the Supreme Revolutionary Committee, told Reuters it had still not seen an official announcement about a cessation of hostilities and that skirmishes continued in outer suburbs of Hodeidah.
Street battles in Hodeidah have abated over the last three days and the city was calm on Thursday, residents said. Coalition warplanes have conducted intermittent air strikes, mostly in the evening.
“We heard some sporadic (mortar) shelling this morning, but it is very calm,” said resident Arwa Mohammed. “People have started to leave their houses and go outside. We don’t want the fighting to resume as our situation is miserable.”
International aid groups have warned a full-scale assault on Hodeidah, which handles 80 percent of the impoverished country’s food imports and aid supplies, would risk triggering a famine.
Some 22 million Yemenis, out of a population of 29 million, rely humanitarian aid, according to U.N. data. Almost 18 million are considered hungry and 8.4 million severely hungry.
The coalition abandoned its last attempt to capture Hodeidah last June without any gains amid concern about a humanitarian catastrophe.
Analysts say that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which is leading operations on the southern and western coast of Yemen, want to exit what has become a costly quagmire, but that any peace talks will have to overcome deep mistrust among all parties.
U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths is trying to salvage talks between the warring Yemeni parties after the last round in September collapsed when the Houthis did not show up.
He hopes to convene talks before the end of the year to agree a framework for peace under a transitional government.
Sweden is preparing to host consultations when the parties “are ready to talk”, said a source familiar with the matter. “I would describe the process as slightly positive. Steps have been taken during the last weeks towards peace talks.”
UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash has welcomed an early resumption of talks, saying the alliance would raise the issue at a U.N. Security Council meeting on Friday.
“(The) coalition will urge all parties to take advantage of window of opportunity to restart political process,” he wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.
There has been a military stalemate since the alliance seized the southern port city of Aden in 2015. While the coalition has air supremacy, the Houthis are better at guerrilla warfare.
(Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Aden and Aziz El Yaakoubi in Dubai; Additional reporting by Johan Sennero in Sotckholm; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous and Raissa Kasolowsky)