Ye­men peace talk de­lays add to fears of fresh on­slaught

The Guardian - - WORLD - ▲ Bethan McKer­nan

Talks aimed at end­ing Ye­men’s war have been pushed back to the end of the year, spark­ing fears that the in­tense vi­o­lence will worsen and the coun­try will be plunged into famine as the Saudi-backed coali­tion seeks to com­pletely re­take a vi­tal Red Sea port.

Vi­o­lence in Houthi rebel-con­trolled Hodei­dah has flared in the past week as mili­tias loyal to the gov­ern­ment at­tempt to break the stale­mate be­fore the end of the month, when the US and UN had called for a cease­fire.

More than 200 coali­tion airstrikes have hit civil­ian neigh­bour­hoods and at least 150 peo­ple have died in the bomb­ing af­ter step­ping on Houthi land­mines or be­ing caught in ar­tillery fire, aid work­ers said.

A hos­pi­tal in the May 22 district in Hodei­dah’s east – stormed by Houthis who took up sniper po­si­tions on the rooftop six days ago – has been emp­tied of staff and pa­tients, leav­ing the city with just one func­tion­ing med­i­cal fa­cil­ity.

“Be­fore they left, the Houthis burned down the sec­tion where pa­per records and files were stored,” a lo­cal man, Baseem al-Janani, said. “They wanted to cre­ate fire and smoke so they are not eas­ily spot­ted and tar­geted.”

If the ur­ban war­fare con­tin­ues, Hodei­dah’s 600,000 pop­u­la­tion stands to suf­fer. Half are chil­dren, who are at in­creased risk of cholera and mal­nu­tri­tion.

Even a small amount of dam­age to the city’s port, through which 80% of the coun­try’s food, fuel and aid flows, is likely to plunge the coun­try into famine. The fight­ing has al­ready pre­vented aid from leav­ing Hodei­dah, en­dan­ger­ing 14 mil­lion Ye­me­nis.

It is be­lieved the coali­tion could con­tinue with a full-scale as­sault, de­spite re­peated calls from aid agen­cies for an im­me­di­ate halt to hos­til­i­ties.

“If the bat­tle rages on at this level of in­ten­sity, I be­lieve it will only take a month or a month and a half to lib­er­ate Hodei­dah, un­less the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity in­ter­venes,” said lo­cal Ibrahim Seif.

“Hodei­dah is on the verge of a ter­ri­ble hu­man­i­tar­ian dis­as­ter which will only add to the wider tragedy al­ready suf­fered by Ye­me­nis in this ugly war,” said Tawakkol Kar­man, a Ye­meni No­bel peace prize lau­re­ate. “My coun­try is be­ing sys­tem­at­i­cally de­stroyed.”

The fu­ture of the vi­tal port is un­clear: the UN has de­manded it be un­der its ju­ris­dic­tion, but forces loyal to Ye­meni com­man­der Tareq Saleh and the sep­a­ratist South­ern Tran­si­tional Coun­cil – on pa­per coali­tion mem­bers al­lied against the Houthis – are also likely to jos­tle for con­trol.

While the coali­tion hopes re­mov­ing the Houthis from Sana’a, Ye­men’s cap­i­tal, will bring the war to an end, the decades-old Houthi move­ment is likely to re­treat to its high­land strongholds and con­tinue to wage guer­rilla war­fare. Peace talks planned for early next month in Swe­den were re­port­edly de­railed by the Houthis, who ob­jected to the US im­pe­tus and re­fused to come to the ta­ble un­less sev­eral new de­mands were met. The last round of talks in Geneva in Septem­ber failed af­ter the Houthis failed to at­tend af­ter three days, cit­ing se­cu­rity con­cerns.

“There’s a lot of hope­ful rhetoric on Ye­men in west­ern cap­i­tals at the mo­ment but it’s com­pletely not in tune with what’s hap­pen­ing on the ground,” said Adam Baron, a non­res­i­dent fel­low at the Eu­ro­pean Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions.

The Saudi-led coali­tion fight­ing to re­store the ex­iled Ye­meni gov­ern­ment is un­der re­newed pres­sure from in­ter­na­tional al­lies in Wash­ing­ton and else­where to end its in­volve­ment in the war fol­low­ing the death of jour­nal­ist Ja­mal Khashoggi in the Saudi con­sulate in Is­tan­bul last month.

The US, how­ever, is send­ing mixed sig­nals on what it wants for Ye­men’s fu­ture, af­ter re­ports emerged that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is con­sid­er­ing des­ig­nat­ing the Houthis, who re­ceive mil­i­tary back­ing from Iran, a ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion.

Pro-gov­ern­ment forces gather on the eastern out­skirts of Hodei­dah

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