Yemen government will not let Houthis keep Hodeidah: minister

CAIRO (Reuters) - The Saudi-backed Yemeni government will not allow its Houthi foes to keep the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, the information minister said, underlining its intention to remove the vital aid delivery point from the control of the Iran-aligned group.

FILE PHOTO: A soldier walks at Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Yemen May 10, 2017. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad/File Photo

The United Nations has proposed that Hodeidah, where 80 percent of food imports arrive, should be handed to a neutral party, to smooth the flow of humanitarian relief and prevent the port being engulfed by Yemen’s two-year-old war.

The government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi accuses the Houthis of using the port to smuggle in weapons and of collecting custom duties on goods, which they use to finance the war. The Houthis deny this.

“The government will not accept that Houthi control of Hodeidah port continues, or that humanitarian aid is obstructed or that its revenues are used for the military effort while state employees have not been paid for 10 months,” the minister, Muammar al-Iryani, told Reuters on a visit to Cairo.

Iryani repeated that the government had accepted a proposal by U.N. envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, to hand over control of Hodeidah to a neutral party as a way of avoiding military action.

“The government has in principle accepted Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s proposals regarding Hodeidah out of a feeling of responsibility for all the people of Yemen, but the Houthis have rejected them,” he said.

The Houthis have signaled they are ready to discuss the move as part of measures that would involve assurances that long delayed salaries of state workers be paid and resuming commercial flights from the capital Sanaa.

Yemen has been devastated by more then two years of civil war in which Hadi’s government, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, is fighting to drive the Houthis out of cities they seized in 2014 and 2015 in a rapid rise to national power.

Efforts to broker a fresh U.N.-sponsored peace talks are stalled, blocked by disagreement over demands that the Houthis hand over Hodeidah to a neutral party and Houthi demands that the government pays civil servants their back-pay.

The Houthis are also demanding that the Saudi-led coalition, which controls Yemen’s airspace, allow commercial flights to resume from the airport of the capital Sanaa.

Iryani said that an attack by the Houthis on al-Mokha port last week was an attempt to obstruct plans to rehabilitate the facility and prepare it to be an alternative to Hodeidah.

The Yemen war has killed more than 10,000 people, destroyed Yemen’s infrastructure and pushed the country to the brink of famine, and there is no sign that the conflict will end soon.

A cholera outbreak has also killed some 1,900 more people since April and infected more than 400,000 and the number is expected to rise to more than 600,000 by the end of the year, according to estimates by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Editing by Sami Aboudi and Richard Balmforth