Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Picture: REUTERS
Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Picture: REUTERS

UN-sponsored peace talks between Yemen’s warring parties are expected to start next week in Sweden, Britain’s envoy to Yemen said on Thursday, as western allies press for an end to the war that has pushed the country to the verge of starvation.

The UN is trying to reconvene talks between the Saudi-backed government led by Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Iranian-aligned Houthi group to agree on a framework for peace and a transitional governing body.

A previous round in Geneva collapsed in September when the Houthis failed to show up.

The outrage over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul has increased scrutiny on Riyadh’s role in conflicts in the region, potentially giving western powers, which provide arms and intelligence to the Saudi-led coalition, greater impetus for action.

“The Sweden consultations led by the UN envoy will take place next week … the political solution is the way to move forward,” Michael Aron, the Riyadh-based British ambassador to Yemen, tweeted to the Houthis’ spokesperson, Mohammed Abdusalam.

Britain is a major arms supplier to Saudi Arabia and opposition politicians and human rights groups have called on the government to cease such sales due to the high civilian death toll in air raids by the coalition in Yemen.

Germany has moved to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the Khashoggi killing and Denmark has suspended future approvals of weapons and military equipment exports there.

A member of Hadi’s delegation said on Wednesday the talks are due to be held on December 4, but the date could change “depending on logistics”.

Martin Griffiths, the UN envoy to Yemen, visited the Houthi-held capital Sanaa this week where he met the group’s leaders. The UN humanitarian chief, Mark Lowcock, arrived in Sanaa on Thursday.

A spokesperson from Griffiths’s office declined to give an exact date for the talks.

“Preparations are ongoing as planned and we hope the consultations will convene in early December,” she said.

The UN hopes to get an agreement on Hodeidah port, the entry point for the bulk of Yemen’s commercial imports as well as the much-needed aid supplies, that will lead to a broader ceasefire.

The Houthis have agreed to hand over the management of the port to the UN, but both parties in the war still have to agree on who will hold control over the city, especially around key facilities.

Facing starvation

The coalition, which renewed its offensive to capture the port in November, has said taking control of Hodeidah will cut off the Houthis’ main supply line and force them to adopt a softer stance on the negotiating table.

But the international community fears an all-out attack on the port could disrupt its operations and lead to a famine in the impoverished country, where an estimated 8.4-million people are facing starvation.

The UN has no up-to-date estimate of the death toll in Yemen. It said in August 2016 that according to medical centres at least 10,000 people had been killed.

The UN’s Lowcock called on authorities in Sanaa to improve the environment in which the aid agencies operate.

“Keep the ports open, keep the roads open, provide access to all the key facilities, provide our visas, release our cargos at the port,” Lowcock told reporters in Sanaa.

“It’s essential that everybody co-operates strongly with my colleague Martin Griffiths, and goes to the talks that he hopes to convene in Sweden very soon,” he added.

The last UN attempt to convene the warring parties collapsed after the Houthis asked for guarantees from the UN that their aircraft would not be inspected. They also wanted to evacuate some of their wounded to Oman for treatment.

Saudi Arabia has confirmed its willingness to evacuate 50 wounded Houthi fighters as a confidence-building measure, British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt has said.

Kuwait has offered to provide aircraft for the parties to ensure the participation of both sides in Stockholm.

The Houthis said last week they are halting drone and missile attacks on coalition forces, responding to a demand from the UN. However, the group’s al-Masirah TV said on Thursday the group fired a ballistic missile on the Saudi-bordering region of Najran.

The Saudi-led coalition halted its offensive on the port city of Hodeidah, though skirmishes continued on the outskirts. — Reuters