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Progress In Peace Talks To Resolve Civil War In Yemen


We have surprising progress to report on the war in Yemen. The United Nations secretary general announced a cease-fire deal today for a vital port city called Hodeidah. It's on the Red Sea. Now, if this cease-fire should work, that would allow humanitarian aid through the port city into the country where millions of people are said to need help, and some are facing starvation. NPR's Ruth Sherlock has been covering this story and is on the line. Ruth, would you describe how this cease-fire is supposed to work?

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Well, according to the agreement, they are going to cease fighting in all of the province of Hodeidah, as well as the city, and withdraw troops from near the port itself. This is the best outcome that they could have realistically hoped for at these talks. The two sides - there's so much kind of hatred between the two sides that they never thought that they were going to actually find a negotiation to - a solution to the war. So they're focusing on these confidence-building measures at these talks.

At the start of the talks a week ago, they agreed to the release of some 15,000 prisoners. And they thought they might secure other deals, like reopening the airport in the capital Sana'a. But Hodeidah is, really, the biggest measure that they could have tackled. This is, maybe, the thorniest issue in the war right now. And the two sides have been deadlocked over this for months, so it's seen as a real success.

INSKEEP: Let's remind people who the two sides are. There are Yemeni factions in this civil war. There's a rebel faction that has controlled the capital now for years there and is...


INSKEEP: ...Said to be supported by Iran. There is another faction, which is backed by Saudi Arabia and through the Saudis by the United States. And the Saudi-led faction have been trying to retake this port city. Why is this particular port so vital as you said?

SHERLOCK: Well, it's really a lifeline for the country. You know, Yemen is maybe one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. It's being - it's just steps away from being declared in famine. And already, thousands of people have died of starvation. So just to put that into context, the U.N. says that Yemen - of Yemen's population of about 29 million, about 22 million are in need of aid. And the problem is that Yemen relies almost entirely on imports for its food. But the war has disrupted the means to get this material into the country.

The Saudi-led coalition, for example, has forced the closure of the airport in Sana'a, as I mentioned. And the Houthis on the other side have planted landmines in other parts of the country that prevent the distribution of food. So having a port secured and far away from the war is what the U.N. is hoping for. And that would allow to get essential supplies into the country.

INSKEEP: Granting that this would be a big step if it works, have the two sides made any progress toward resolving the fundamental conflict in the war of who's going to control Yemen?

SHERLOCK: The U.N. has been trying to draft a document that kind of gets towards that. But they didn't address finding a solution to the war in this round. They say that they're going to hold another round of talks in January and try to start to talk about that. But this war has been entrenched for years and neither side has felt, really, that they have much to gain by ending the fighting right now.

So it's really a question - there's many, many, many problems ahead before they can find a solution. This is - we're a long way off from finding a solution to the overall conflict. But this is a significant first step that might help relieve some of the suffering of Yemenis on the ground now.

INSKEEP: Our NPR colleague Ruth Sherlock has traveled to Yemen in the past and is following news of a cease-fire today, covering the area surrounding the port city of Hodeidah. Ruth, thanks very much.

SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.