Houthis rebuff demand for Hodeidah withdrawal
First Yemeni peace talks in two years under way; US mediator seeking confidence-building steps
Yemen’s Houthi rebels will not hand over the key port of Hodeidah to the rival government, a rebel representative said yesterday, as the two parties met for UN-brokered talks in Sweden. “This is not on the table,” Abdulmalik al-Ajri, a member of the rebel delegation said after the Yemeni government said it was seeking a full Houthi withdrawal from the flashpoint port city. Houthis control the Red Sea city of Hodeidah, a conduit for 90% of food imports.
Yemen’s Saudi-backed government has proposed reopening the Houthi-held airport in the capital Sanaa on condition planes are inspected in the airports of Aden or Sayun which are under its control, two government officials said yesterday.
The Houthis rejected the proposal floated at UN-sponsored peace talks in Sweden that are aimed at cementing confidence-building measures that could lead to a ceasefire to halt air strikes by a Saudi-led coalition and Houthi missile attacks on Saudi cities.
But given this is only the second day of the talks due to last until Dec 13, and with both sides are coming under mounting pressure for action because of the human toll of the war, there could be room for concessions.
The war has killed tens of thousands of people and spawned what the United Nations calls the world’s direst humanitarian crisis, since the coalition intervened in 2015 to restore a government ousted by the Houthi movement.
The warring sides agreed on Thursday to free thousands of prisoners, in what UN mediator Martin Griffiths called a hopeful start to the first peace talks in two years to end a war that has pushed millions of people to the verge of starvation.
Griffiths wants a deal on reopening the airport, shoring up the central bank and securing a truce in Hodeidah, the country’s main port, held by the Houthis and a focus of the war after the coalition launched a campaign to capture it this year.
Sanaa airport, which has been bombed several times, is in Houthi territory but access is restricted by the Saudi-led coalition, which controls the air space.
Marwan Dammaj, Yemen’s minister of culture in the internationally recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, told Reuters Sanaa airport should be reopened to put “an end to the people’s suffering regarding transportation”.
“But it should be a domestic airport from where Yemenis can go to Aden and then leave to international destinations,” added Dammaj, a member of the government delegation.
Hamza al-Kamali, another member of the delegation, said airplanes must stop in airports in the southern city of Aden or Sayun, east of the capital, for inspection before leaving Yemen.
The Houthi delegation head at the peace talks, Mohamed Abdusalam, rejected the proposal. “The airport should be opened in accordance to international standards, and we do not accept inspections,” Abdusalam told Al Jazeera television.
A UN source declined to comment.
The United Nations is also trying to avert a full-scale assault on Hodeidah, the entry point for most of Yemen’s commercial goods and aid.
Both sides have reinforced positions in the Red Sea city in sporadic battles after a de-escalation last month.
Yemen’s government is sticking to its position that Hodeidah should be under its control, said Kamali. “We say that the city should be controlled by a police force from Hodeidah’s sons and not the Houthis.
We cannot legitimise the presence of the Houthi in Hodeidah.”
Abdusalam said the port of Hodeidah must be kept apart from the military conflict, and that a government should be formed first before all parties are disarmed.
The war, widely seen across the region as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has been in stalemate for years, threatening supply lines to feed nearly 30mn inhabitants.
The Houthis control Sanaa and the other most populated areas, while the ousted government based in the southern city of Aden has struggled to advance despite the aid of Arab states.
No peace talks have been held since 2016, and the last attempt in Geneva in September failed when the Houthis did not attend.
The humanitarian suffering in one of the poorest countries has added to pressure on the parties to end the conflict, with faith in the Saudi-led war effort flagging among Western allies that arm and support the coalition. Outrage over the Oct 2 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate has also undermined Western support for Riyadh’s regional activities.
Marwan Dammaj, Yemen’s Minister of Culture, speaks to media during the peace talks on Yemen held at Johannesberg Castle, in Rimbo, Sweden yesterday.
Journalists report from the peace talks on Yemen held at Johannesberg Castle, in Rimbo, Sweden.