UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Wednesday to authorize a U.N. mission to monitor implementation of a cease-fire and the withdrawal of rival forces from Yemen's key port of Hodeida agreed to by the government and Houthi Shiite rebels.
The agreement, if fully implemented, could offer a potential breakthrough in Yemen's four-year civil war, which has brought the Arab world's poorest country to the brink of starvation and created the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
The British-drafted resolution establishes a United Nations political mission to oversee implementation of the cease-fire and redeployment of forces agreement that was reached by the warring parties in Stockholm on Dec. 13. It gives a green light for up to 75 U.N. monitors to be deployed for an initial period of six months.
Britain's U.N. Ambassador Karen Pierce called it "an important moment for the U.N." to solidify the Stockholm agreement.
"This is by no means the end of the story," Pierce told reporters before the vote. "This is going to be a very important issue for 2019. But with the deployment of this substantive mission, we can start to make progress on the ground."
France's U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre said "the goal is to build on the current momentum to make it irreplaceable, and for that to bring the full weight of the Security Council behind the process."
The Security Council voted unanimously Dec. 21 to authorize U.N. monitors to observe implementation of the Stockholm agreement, but only for 30 days, so a new resolution was needed to establish a more permanent U.N. operation and extend the deployment.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric reiterated Wednesday that about 20 U.N. monitors are in Yemen under retired Dutch Maj. Gen. Patrick Cammaert, who will head the new U.N. mission.
"From our end, we will mobilize as quickly as possible" to get additional monitors into Hodeida, Dujarric said, urging the parties to approve visas as quickly as possible for them as well as U.N. humanitarian staffers.
Britain's Pierce said the agreement has seen "a welcome de-escalation around Hodeida, but there are still provocative acts being carried out, particularly by one party." She was apparently referring to reported actions by the Houthis who control the Hodeida area.
Pierce urged the warring parties to cooperate with Cammaert.
As a sign of the distrust between the government and the Houthis, the U.N. said Wednesday that their representatives have refused to talk face-to-face recent meetings, including this week, to discuss the redeployment of forces from Hodeida. So Cammaert had to shuttle between them.
Dujarric said Cammaert's aim "is to strengthen the cease-fire and to find common ground on a plan for the redeployment of forces in the three ports and the city of Hodeida."
The resolution adopted Wednesday authorizes the monitors to oversee the cease-fire in Hodeida and the surrounding area, de-mining operations at Hodeida and the smaller ports of Salif and Ras Issa, and the redeployment of forces. They are also authorized to work with the government and rebels to assure that local forces provide security at the three ports.
The port of Hodeida handles 70 percent of the food and humanitarian aid imported into Yemen and is critical to tackling the country's humanitarian crisis.
U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told the Security Council last week that the humanitarian situation had not improved since the Stockholm agreement and "remains catastrophic," with 80 percent of Yemen's population — over 24 million people — now in need of assistance.
"They include nearly 10 million people just one step away from famine," he said.
Lowcock said an immediate objective after Stockholm was to regain access to the Red Sea Mills in Hodeida, which holds about 51,000 metric tons of food commodities — enough to feed 3.5m people for a month. It had been impossible for humanitarian workers to get there because of fighting, he said.
Dujarric said Wednesday that the government and the Houthis have committed in writing to Cammaert to facilitate access to the Red Sea Mills. He said Cammaert will propose a plan in a few days on how to access the area and retrieve the food before it spoils.
The conflict in Yemen began with the 2014 takeover of Sanaa by the Iranian-backed Houthis, who toppled the government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. A Saudi-led coalition allied with Yemen's internationally recognized government has been fighting the Houthis since 2015.
Saudi-led airstrikes have hit schools, hospitals and wedding parties and killed thousands of Yemeni civilians. The Houthis have fired long-range missiles into Saudi Arabia and targeted vessels in the Red Sea.
Dan Schneiderman, Crisis Group's deputy U.S. program director and former director for Yemen at the U.S. National Security Council in the Obama and Trump administrations, called the Security Council resolution "a step in the right direction."
"Lowering the temperature in and around Hodeida is critical for making broader peace talks accessible," he said.