RIYADH: Yemen’s president said Thursday he is handing his powers to a new leadership council, in a major shake-up in the coalition battling Houthi rebels as a fragile ceasefire takes hold. But Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam dismissed the move as “a desperate attempt to rearrange the ranks of the mercenaries” fighting in Yemen, and said peace would only come once foreign forces leave.
President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi made the announcement in a televised statement on the final day of Yemen talks held in the Saudi capital Riyadh. “I irreversibly delegate to this presidential leadership council my full powers,” he said. Saudi Arabia said it welcomed Hadi’s announcement and pledged $3 billion in aid and support for its war-torn neighbor, some of it to be paid by the United Arab Emirates.
Hadi’s internationally recognized government has been locked in conflict with the Iran-backed Houthis, who control the capital Sanaa and most of the north despite a Saudi-led military intervention launched in 2015. Hadi has been based in Saudi Arabia since fleeing to the kingdom that year as rebel forces closed in on his last redoubt, the southern port city of Aden.
A United Nations-brokered truce that took effect last Saturday – the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan – has offered a glimmer of hope in the conflict which has triggered what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The truce came as discussions on Yemen were unfolding in Riyadh without the participation of the Houthis, who refused to attend talks on “enemy” territory. “The path to peace is by stopping the aggression, lifting the siege, and taking the foreign forces out of the country,” said Abdulsalam, the Houthi spokesman.
Some analysts had cast doubt on what the negotiations could achieve in the absence of the Houthis, but Thursday’s news may help the sometimes fractious coalition battling the rebels to speak with one voice in any future peace negotiations. “The status quo was going nowhere,” Elisabeth Kendall, a researcher at Oxford University said.
“Something big needed to change to get the warring parties on track to a political process. This transfer of presidential powers could be it.” Peter Salisbury, senior Yemen analyst for the International Crisis Group, said on Twitter that the formation of the council represents “the most consequential shift in the inner workings of the anti-Houthi bloc since the war began”. But he cautioned that implementing the arrangement would be “complicated to say the least”.
Hadi also announced he had sacked Vice President Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar. The new council will consist of eight members and be led by Rashad Al-Alimi, a former interior minister and adviser to Hadi. Hadi said it would be tasked with “negotiating with the Houthis for a permanent ceasefire”. He said it should also sit down for talks “to reach a final and comprehensive political solution, that includes a transitional phase that will move Yemen from a state of war to a state of peace”.
A ‘new page’?
Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, met the council and said he hoped for a “new page” to turn in Yemen, footage aired by state media showed. The secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council Nayef Al-Hajraf also welcomed Hadi’s announcement, pledging the bloc’s support for the new council “in its tasks to achieve safety and security” in Yemen.
France said it welcomed the creation of the council and called it “an important step towards restoring a state that serves all Yemenis and is engaged in the political process”. Yemen’s 30 million people are in dire need of assistance. A UN donors’ conference this month raised less than a third of its $4.27 billion target, prompting dark warnings for a country where 80 percent of the population depends on aid.
As part of the truce, the Saudi-led coalition agreed to ease its longstanding air and sea blockade to allow commercial flights into the capital Sanaa, and fuel and more food shipments into the aid lifeline port of Hodeida. Both cities are held by the Houthis. The UN special envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, said Wednesday that there had been a “significant reduction of violence” since the truce took effect but both sides have accused each other of minor “breaches” of the ceasefire.- AFP