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UN council authorizes monitors for truce at key Yemen port

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Friday to authorize the deployment of U.N. monitors to observe the implementation of a cease-fire in Yemen's key port of Hodeida and the withdrawal of rival forces from that area.

The limited cease-fire and pullout, if implemented, could offer a potential breakthrough in the four-year civil war that has brought the Arab world's poorest country to the brink of starvation and created the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

The U.N. envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, had urged rapid deployment of U.N. monitors as "an essential part of the confidence" needed to help implement the Dec. 13 cease-fire agreement between Yemen's government and Houthi Shiite rebels reached in Stockholm, Sweden. The pact also calls for the "phased but rapid mutual withdrawals" of fighters from the port and city of Hodeida as well as two other smaller ports in the province.

Britain's U.N. Ambassador Karen Pierce, whose country sponsored the resolution, praised the council's unanimity "on this very important issue that affected so many millions of citizens in Yemen today."

"The most important matter now is that we turn to urgent implementation," she said. "It's vital that the parties follow through on their commitments to pave the way for a formal relaunch of (peace) negotiations, and at the same time deliver real improvements on the ground that make a tangible difference to ordinary Yemenis."

The fragile cease-fire, which went into effect Dec. 18, has halted months of heavy fighting in Hodeida, whose port handles 70 percent of the food and humanitarian aid imported into Yemen. But the Saudi-led coalition backing the government bombed an air base in the rebel-held capital of Sanaa on Wednesday, and Yemeni officials have reported sporadic artillery and automatic weapons fire.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric urged all parties "to abide by the commitments made in Stockholm." He said retired Dutch Maj. Gen. Patrick Cammaert, who is heading the U.N. monitoring operation in Yemen, has already deployed to the region with a small advance team.

"We'll be deploying additional personnel in the coming days as we scale up to support and facilitate the implementation of the agreement," he said, stressing that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is insisting that monitors are deployed very quickly.

Dujarric said the monitoring team — who won't wear uniforms but will be clearly identified as being from the United Nations — will include some observers from other U.N. missions. There had been intense negotiations over the past week on a British-drafted resolution that would authorize the U.N. monitors, including over whether to condemn Iran for supplying weapons to the Houthis — a statement that the U.S. wanted and Russia strongly opposed.

Then, the United States surprised the council by circulating a stripped-down rival resolution Thursday that eliminated all references to Yemen's humanitarian crisis and efforts to find a political solution.

It is exceedingly rare for allies to present rival resolutions to the Security Council. The British responded by putting their draft in a final form that can be voted on. The British final text was revised in last-minute negotiations overnight between the United States and the United Kingdom, diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because talks were private.

That revised draft resolution was approved for all 15 Security Council members. It authorizes Guterres "to establish and deploy, for an initial period of 30 days ... an advance team to begin monitoring and to support and facilitate the immediate implementation of the Stockholm agreement."

It also endorses the truce agreement, a prisoner exchange agreement, and a "statement of understanding" aimed at reducing fighting in the central city of Taiz. The resolution requests Guterres to submit proposals "as soon as possible before Dec. 31" on how the United Nations will fully support the cease-fire, the redeployment of the rival forces from the Hodeida area and other provisions in the accord.

The conflict in Yemen began with the 2014 takeover of Sanaa by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, 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.

In response to Russia's threatened veto of the resolution if it referred to Iran, the initial British text would have condemned "the supply, from whatever source, of weapons and associated material in contravention of the arms embargo" against the Houthis in 2015.

But that language was dropped in the final text as was a provision condemning Houthi attacks against neighboring countries using ballistic missiles and drones. The Security Council gave strong support to Griffiths, the U.N. envoy who says the government and the Houthis will meet again in January to pursue peace efforts.

Council members reaffirmed "that the conflict in Yemen can be resolved only through an inclusive political process." The resolution also addresses the humanitarian crisis, but it dropped a call for "transparent, credible and timely investigations into alleged violations of international humanitarian law."

It does call on the Houthis and the government to remove bureaucratic obstacles to the flow into Yemen of commercial and humanitarian supplies, including desperately needed fuel, to ensure the effective operation of ports and the reopening of Sanaa airport, and to protect medical facilities, schools and other civilian buildings.

The resolution also calls on the government, with international support, to strengthen Yemen's collapsed economy, including by improving the functioning of the central bank and paying pensioners and civil servants' salaries.

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