November 12, 2018 / 3:42 PM / a month ago

Fighting eases in Yemen's Hodeidah as Western pressure mounts

ADEN, Nov 12 (Reuters) - Battles eased in Yemen’s main port city of Hodeidah on Monday in a possible sign of de-escalation as Western allies pressed the Saudi-led coalition to end the war against Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels that has left Yemen on the verge of starvation.

Air strikes against Houthi fortifications halted on Monday and street battles, which had been raging for a week on the outskirts of the Red Sea city, trapping civilians and endangering hospitals, died down, residents said.

The lull coincided with a visit by British foreign minister Jeremy Hunt to Saudi Arabia to press for an end to the nearly four-year war that has killed more than 10,000 people.

U.N. officials welcomed the development as a positive sign, but coalition spokesman, Colonel Turki al-Malki, said the offensive on the Houthi-held city was still on.

“The operation is still ongoing. It’s not true that there is a ceasefire in Hodeidah,” Malki told reporters in Riyadh.

The Sunni Muslim coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has renewed its offensive on Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis, as Washington and London called for a ceasefire amid renewed U.N.-led peace efforts.

Western governments that support the coalition with arms and intelligence have toughened their stance on Yemen after the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 sparked a global outcry and opened Riyadh to possible sanctions.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian said there could be no winner in the war and it was time to cut losses.

“It’s a dirty war. The international community needs to say that’s enough. That’s what the U.S. says, we’re saying and the British too,” he told France 2 television.

The conflict is seen as a proxy war between Riyadh and arch foe Shi’ite Iran.

CIVILIANS DESPERATE

The U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, Lise Grande, had welcomed the easing in battles as a positive sign, especially for trapped civilians who are “absolutely desperate”.

“It seems that the shelling and the strafing and the bombing has stopped. Now, we’re not sure about the implications of this, but it is very welcome indeed,” she told BBC radio.

Another U.N. official told Reuters there are some positive signs that the warring parties are moving toward de-escalation as the United Nations tries to resume peace talks that collapsed in September when the Houthis failed to show up.

International medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said it treated 134 wounded from the fighting in Hodeidah, including 14 women and 24 children since Nov. 1.

Hodeidah is an entry point for 80 percent of the impoverished country’s food imports and relief supplies. The United Nations has warned that any disruption to the port risks triggering a famine.

The coalition intervened in the war in 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government ousted by the Houthis, who control populous areas of Yemen including the capital Sanaa.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi say wresting control of Hodeidah, the Houthi’s main supply line, would force the group to negotiate.

The coalition had abandoned an earlier offensive on the city in June without any gains amid international concern about a humanitarian catastrophe to give peace efforts a chance. (Additional reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi in Dubai, Stephen Kalin in Riyadh, Tom Miles in Geneva and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous and Angus MacSwan)

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