UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the closing session at the Yemen peace talks at Johannesberg castle in Rimbo, Sweden, December 13 2018. Picture: TT NEWS AGENCY/PONTUS LUNDAHL/REUTERS
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the closing session at the Yemen peace talks at Johannesberg castle in Rimbo, Sweden, December 13 2018. Picture: TT NEWS AGENCY/PONTUS LUNDAHL/REUTERS

Rimbo, Sweden — UN chief Antonio Guterres announced on Thursday a series of breakthroughs in peace talks with the warring parties in Yemen, including a ceasefire for a vital port.

In a highly symbolic gesture on the seventh and final day of the UN-brokered peace talks in Sweden, Yemeni foreign minister Khaled al-Yamani and rebel negotiator Mohammed Abdelsalam shook hands to loud applause. But both later voiced scepticism in separate press conferences.

If implemented, the deal on the Hodeida port, a key gateway for aid and food imports to a country where 14-million people stand at the brink of famine, would mark a major turning point after four years of devastating war.

But a number of key issues remain unresolved. A new round of talks is scheduled for the end of January, with analysts predicting the US will continue to up the pressure on ally Saudi Arabia to end the conflict.

The fighting has triggered what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with one child dying every 10 minutes of preventable causes.

International pressure has been mounting to halt the fighting between the Iran-linked Houthis and the government of Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, backed by Saudi Arabia and its military allies.

Guterres, who flew in to Sweden late on Wednesday, announced that the government and Houthi rebels had agreed a ceasefire in the port of Hodeida. The UN will play a “leading role” in monitoring the Red Sea port, which is under rebel control, and facilitate aid access for the civilian population.

“There is a ceasefire declared for the whole governorate of Hodeida in the agreement and there will be both from the city and the harbour a withdrawal of all forces, Guterres told reporters.

UN special envoy Martin Griffiths, who is due to brief the security council on Yemen on Friday, said the pullout should take place within days.

The rivals have also reached a mutual understanding on Yemen’s third city of Taiz, the scene of some of the most intense battles in the conflict, to facilitate the delivery of aid.

But no deal has been reached on the future of the airport in the capital, Sanaa, or on economic measures needed to spare the population from further hunger.

The January talks will focus on a framework for negotiations in a political process, which Guterres said is the only solution to the conflict.

Yemen's foreign minister told reporters the deals are the biggest step forward since the outbreak of the war but remain hypothetical. The lead rebel negotiator said the Houthis had made major concessions on Hodeida.

The rebels hold both Hodeida and Sanaa, while the Saudi led-military coalition controls Yemen’s maritime borders and airspace.

Sanaa airport has been closed to commercial flights for nearly three years, and Griffiths said its fate will be discussed at the next round.

Analysts said the Rimbo talks progressed better than anticipated, two years after negotiations collapsed with no breakthrough after three months. 

“The Sweden talks have achieved more than anyone expected,” the International Crisis Group told AFP. “We have heard a different tone from the government of Yemen in these talks, and US pressure has clearly focused minds in the Gulf.”

Anger at the human cost of the war and outrage over the October killing of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul have prompted the international community to take a harder line over the Yemen war, and particularly the role of the Saudi-led coalition.

Both the rebels and government alliance stand accused of failing to protect civilians. The UN last year blacklisted the coalition for the killing and maiming of children in air raids.

The US Senate on Wednesday voted to advance a resolution that ends US backing for the Saudi-led intervention by 60 votes to 39, with 11 Republicans joining Democrats to back the measure.

The final vote is expected to take place later on Thursday. However, if the upper house approves the resolution, it is likely to run aground in the lower House of Representatives, where Republicans hold the majority until January 3.

The Yemen ambassadors of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, core players in the conflict, were in Rimbo for the last day of negotiations. British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt also met with both the government and rebels on Thursday.

The Sweden talks mark the first meeting in two years between the northern Houthi rebels and the Hadi government, which has been backed since 2015 by the Saudi-led coalition.

The last round of talks, hosted by Kuwait in 2016, collapsed after more than three months of negotiations with no breakthrough.

Saudi Arabia and its Arab coalition partners “strongly support” the agreement, Riyadh’s US ambassador Khalid bin Salman said.

 “The agreement announced today will help bring back security to the region including the security of the Red Sea, a vital water way for international trade,” the envoy, who is the brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, said on his Twitter account.