Yemen war rivals lash out as talks start
▶ Consultations mark 1st attempt in two years to broker an end to conflict
Talks between Yemen’s government and rebels, locked in a devastating war for nearly four years, opened Thursday as tension remained high despite what the UN envoy called a “critical opportunity.”
Yemen’s government and rebels doubled down on their rival demands Thursday, just moments before hard-won consultations were due to open in Sweden under the auspices of the US.
The talks will not include negotiations on a solution to the conflict between the Saudibacked government of Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi and Yemen’s Huthi rebels, UN envoy Martin Griffiths told reporters.
As one of the most impoverished countries in the world, the Arabian Peninsula state of Yemen is now home to what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with 14 million people facing imminent mass starvation.
The talks have been months in the making, with the UN sending its special envoy to Sanaa to personally escort the rebel delegation to Sweden. They are slated to last for one week, according to a source in the UN.
“During the coming days we will have a critical opportunity to give momentum to the peace process,” Griffiths told reporters as the rival delegations gathered in Sweden.
“There is a way we can resolve the conflict,” Griffiths said, adding that the UN Security Council was “united” in its support for a resolution to the conflict.
“Remember these are consultations. We are not yet beginning the process of negotiations.”
The talks mark the first attempt in two years to broker an end to the Yemen conflict, which has killed at least 10,000 people since Saudi Arabia and its allies joined the government’s fight against the rebels in 2015.
Warring parties struck a far from conciliatory tone in the moments before the talks were due to open in Rimbo, Sweden – a picturesque village some 60 kilometers north of Stockholm.
The head of the Huthi rebels’ political council threatened Thursday to bar UN planes from using the Yemeni capital’s airport unless the peace negotiations lead to its full reopening.
Sanaa international airport, located in the rebel-held capital, has been largely shut down for years. It has been the target of air raids by the Saudi-led coalition, which also controls Yemeni airspace.
The Yemeni government immediately hit back, with the foreign ministry demanding the rebels disarm and withdraw from the flashpoint port city of Hodeida, home to Yemen’s most valuable port.
The Saudi-led coalition has led an offensive to retake Hodeida, the last rebel stronghold on Yemen’s Red Sea coast, for months, sparking fears for more than 150,000 civilians trapped in the city as even hospitals were seized by militants.
Griffiths said the UN was willing to step in in Hodeida, an offer the Saudi-led coalition has rejected unless the rebels withdraw completely from Yemen’s western coastline.
“The UN is willing if the parties so desire to play a part in the port and city. We’d like to take Hodeida out of the conflict because ... it’s the humanitarian pipeline to the rest of the country,” Griffiths said.
“We would like to see that airport open, but it needs to be assessed,” he said. “We’d like to see progress on this.”