RIYADH — The opposing sides in Yemen’s civil war have agreed to a cease-fire in a port city that serves as a critical lifeline for humanitarian aid to the country, along with other measures that signaled rare diplomatic progress after more than four years of conflict, the United Nations secretary general said Thursday.
“We are living the beginning of the end of one of the biggest tragedies of the 21st century,” António Guterres told reporters.
Guterres spoke after a week of U.N.-brokered talks in Sweden between Yemen’s Saudi-backed government and a Yemeni rebel group known as the Houthis that the secretary general said yielded agreement to halt the fighting in Hodeida, the port city, and its surrounding province, along with a prisoner swap that could free thousands.
The agreement comes amid growing international pressure to end the war, a conflict that has sparked what the United Nations deems the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and has become a proxy battle between U.S.-backed Arab nations and Iran, which supports the Houthis.
The conflict began in late 2014, after the Houthis ousted the Yemeni government from the capital, Sanaa, and intensified months later when a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia intervened in support of the internationally recognized government.
Previous cease-fire agreements have collapsed quickly. But there has been greater international pressure on the warring sides in recent months to de-escalate the fighting, in part because of warnings by relief agencies that more than 16 million people in Yemen — more than half of the country’s population — are facing famine-like conditions.
More than 60,000 people, combatants and civilians, have been killed in the conflict since 2016, according to an estimate by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.
Guterres warned that achieving peace between the warring parties would be a “lengthy and complex” process, but he noted, “The agreement of today is a demonstration that they are serious in moving with all the obstacles, with all the difficulties.”
Saudi Arabia, the principal backer of the Yemeni government, has faced mounting calls to resolve the war, including from the United States, where lawmakers have criticized U.S. military support to the Saudi-led campaign and coalition airstrikes that have killed thousands of civilians, according to human rights groups.
Congressional scrutiny of U.S. ties to Saudi Arabia has intensified since the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. While the Trump administration has defended Saudi Arabia and argued that U.S. assistance is important to minimizing civilian harm in Yemen, senior officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have urged the warring parties to embrace a cease-fire.
In a sign of congressional frustration, the Senate voted Thursday to approve a measure that, if backed by the House, would end U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign in Yemen.
Hours earlier, the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Khalid bin Salman, said Saudi Arabia and the coalition “strongly support the agreement announced in Sweden today.”
“The agreement is a major step towards alleviating the humanitarian crisis and reaching a political solution,” he said in a message on Twitter.
Anwar Gargash, minister of state for foreign affairs for the United Arab Emirates, which is fighting in Yemen alongside Saudi Arabia, welcomed the news about Hodeida and said in a tweet that “coalition & Yemeni forces military pressure enabled this significant breakthrough.”
But it remained unclear whether developments on the ground, where the Houthis retain territory in Yemen’s most populous areas, were instrumental in enabling the deal or whether mounting pressure on Riyadh from U.S. lawmakers and officials played a decisive role.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged all parties to remain engaged in the effort to forge a lasting solution. “The work ahead will not be easy, but we have seen what many considered improbable begin to take shape,” he said in a statement.
Iran also welcomed the agreement but suggested that the coalition was at fault for Yemenis’ suffering. In a tweet, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Tehran “strongly supports continuation of talks to achieve final accords on all issues. It is well past time for foreign aggressors to end their airstrikes & crimes against humanity.”
Aid groups urged caution over the Hodeida news, given the failure of past cease-fires and the large number of armed groups across Yemen, many of which are not party to the deal.
“The measure of the agreement will be taken in action on the ground, not words in a conference room,” Abdikadir Mohamud, Yemen director for the relief organization Mercy Corps, said in a statement. “We need lifesaving supplies to reach the millions of people in need, and we need safe passage for the humanitarians who will distribute them.”
Gregory Johnsen, a former member of the U.N. Security Council’s Yemen Panel of Experts, said the deal’s lack of detail about certain points, including which Yemeni forces would secure Hodeida after a military withdrawal, threatened its success.
“It is a positive first step, but this agreement, at least to my reading, is incredibly fragile,” he said.
Speaking to the reporters in Sweden, the U.N. secretary general’s special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, said he hoped that an agreement to reopen the Sanaa airport would be reached in coming days.
Ryan reported from Washington. Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.