A United Nations envoy met Yemen’s rebel chief Thursday to nail down details of peace talks expected in December, a day before a planned visit to the battleground port city of Hodeida.
Martin Griffiths, who arrived in the rebel-held capital, Sanaa, on Wednesday, is pushing for negotiations early next month in Sweden to help end years of conflict that have left Yemen facing famine.
The diplomat’s visit to Hodeida on Friday is aimed at encouraging Iran-aligned Houthi rebels and government forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition to keep a lid on hostilities ahead of the talks in Stockholm, a U.N. source said. The conflict in Yemen, which escalated when the Saudi-led alliance intervened in 2015, has killed thousands and left up to 14 million Yemenis at risk of starvation, according to U.N. agencies.
Both sides have in the past week expressed support for the envoy’s mission to hold discussions, and violence in Hodeida has diminished despite intermittent clashes.
The port city has a crucial role as the entry point for nearly all of the country’s imports and humanitarian aid.
Griffiths and Yemeni rebel chief Abdulmalik al-Houthi during their meeting addressed “what can facilitate new discussions in December,” rebel spokesman Mohammed Abdelsalam said on Twitter.
Abdelsalam said that included “procedures needed to transport injured and sick for treatment abroad and bring them back,” a key sticking point during a previous failed attempt at talks in September.
Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, head of the rebels’ Higher Revolutionary Committee and an influential political figure, said the rebels were ready for peace. “We support peace. We are ready for peace if that is what they [the Saudi-led coalition] want,” he said after also meeting Griffiths.
Humanitarian organizations are desperate to see the current peace push translate into a more permanent halt to the bloodshed.
The heads of the U.N.’s humanitarian and children’s agencies said the “recent de-escalation in fighting in Hodeida is providing a desperately needed respite to hundreds of thousands of civilians.”
“We urge all parties to maintain it,” a statement by Mark Lowcock and Henrietta Fore said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis confirmed on Wednesday that peace discussions between the Houthis and the internationally recognized government look set for “very, very early” in December.
He said Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — which is also a key member of the military coalition supporting the loyalists — were “fully on board.”
Kuwait’s Deputy Foreign Minister Khalid al-Jarallah said that the talks might happen on Dec. 3.
He added that his country — which is currently a nonpermanent U.N. Security Council member — would offer “logistical support” at Sweden’s request, without elaborating.
Mattis last month made a surprise call for a cease-fire in Yemen and urged warring parties to enter negotiations within 30 days.
The U.S. has been providing bombs and other weapons, as well as intelligence support, to the Saudi-led coalition backing President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, but recently ended its refueling support for Saudi warplanes.
The killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate has increased scrutiny of Western support for the coalition and ramped up pressure on Riyadh.
On Monday, Britain presented to the U.N. Security Council a draft resolution urging an immediate truce in Hodeida.
The draft, circulated to the 14 other council members, and seen by AFP, sets a two-week deadline for the warring sides to remove all barriers to humanitarian aid.
The current peace push by Griffiths is the biggest effort in two years to end the war.
In September, a previous round of U.N.-led peace talks faltered when the Houthis refused to travel to Geneva, accusing the world body of failing to guarantee their delegation’s return to Sanaa or secure the evacuation of wounded rebels to Oman.
Previous talks broke down in 2016, when 108 days of negotiations in Kuwait failed to yield a deal and left rebel delegates stranded in Oman for three months.
A U.N. panel of experts has accused both the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition of acts that could amount to war crimes.
According to the World Health Organization, nearly 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict, though some rights groups estimate the toll could be five times higher. (VOA)