Ye­meni peace talks ‘dif­fi­cult’

The Weekend Australian - - WORLD -

Yemen’s gov­ern­ment and rebels, locked in a dev­as­tat­ing war, traded ac­cu­sa­tions as they sat down for hard-won talks the UN de­scribed as “dif­fi­cult” but “crit­i­cal”.

The talks in Swe­den are the first in two years, in a con­flict be­tween a pro-gov­ern­ment mil­i­tary coali­tion, led by Saudi Ara­bia, and Iran-backed Houthi in­sur­gents that has pushed im­pov­er­ished Yemen to the brink of mass star­va­tion.

While the days lead­ing up to the gath­er­ing saw the gov­ern­ment and rebels agree­ing on a pris­oner swap deal and the evac­u­a­tion of wounded in­sur­gents for treat­ment in Oman, both par­ties dug in on their de­mands as the UN-spon­sored talks be­gan on Thurs­day night.

UN Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral An­to­nio Guter­res urged the par­ties not to im­pose pre-con­di­tions af­ter both sides put for­ward de­mands, while the rebels said they were still as­sess­ing the “se­ri­ous­ness” of the hard-won talks.

“We will judge whether the Stock­holm talks are se­ri­ous or not to­mor­row,” Houthi spokesman Mo­hammed Ab­del­salam told Al-Mayadeen tele­vi­sion.

The talks, in the Swedish vil­lage of Rimbo north of Stock­holm, where the two sides have to eat in the same cafe­te­ria, are slated to run for one week.

The UN spe­cial en­voy for Yemen, Mar­tin Grif­fiths, said the talks pre­sented a “crit­i­cal op­por­tu­nity” but did not amount to ne­go­ti­a­tions on a full end to the con­flict be­tween the Houthi rebels and the gov­ern­ment.

A UN of­fi­cial said the talks marked “the be­gin­ning of dif­fi­cult work”.

On the ta­ble at the Swe­den talks is the fate of Hodeida, the last rebel strong­hold on Yemen’s Red Sea coast and the con­duit for 90 per cent of food im­ports. The Saudi-led coali­tion, which in­cludes troops trained by the US and UAE, has for months led an of­fen­sive to re­take Hodeida.

The bat­tle has sparked fears for more than 150,000 civil­ians trapped in the city. Saudi Ara­bia and its al­lies ac­cuse the rebels of smug­gling arms from Iran through Hodeida, a charge Tehran de­nies.

“We’d like to take Hodeida out of the con­flict be­cause … it’s the hu­man­i­tar­ian pipe­line to the rest of the coun­try,” Mr Grif­fiths said on Thurs­day night.

Ye­meni For­eign Min­is­ter Khaled al-Ya­mani, who heads the gov­ern­ment del­e­ga­tion, said his team would de­liver on a planned pris­oner swap with the Houthi rebels.

He re­fused to com­pro­mise on Hodeida, home to Yemen’s most valu­able port.

“The Houthi mili­tias must with­draw from the city of Hodeida and its port and hand it over to the le­git­i­mate gov­ern­ment, and specif­i­cally in­ter­nal se­cu­rity forces,” Mr Ya­mani said.

Hamid Is­sam, a mem­ber of the team of Houthi rebels in Swe­den, dis­missed Mr Ya­mani’s role in the talks al­to­gether.

“We came here with the in­ten­tion that these talks would suc­ceed,” Mr Is­sam said.

“But it is not up to Khaled alYa­mani … It is up to Saudi Ara­bia, the United Arab Emi­rates and the US.

“If they could have taken Hodeida four years ago, they would have. They have not been able to take it, and they will not be able to take it as long as the peo­ple of Yemen are fight­ing.”

Mr Grif­fiths’s plans to host talks in Geneva in Septem­ber col­lapsed on the open­ing day af­ter the rebels re­fused to leave the Ye­meni cap­i­tal in case they were not al­lowed to re­turn.

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