Yemeni peace talks ‘difficult’
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.