SANAA, Dec 4, (Agencies): A Houthi delegation left for Sweden on Tuesday for UNsponsored Yemen peace talks, the first since 2016, as Western nations press for an end to the war and the United Nations warned of a looming economic disaster.
The nearly four-year-old conflict, which has killed thousands and left millions facing starvation, pits the Iranianaligned Houthi group against Yemeni forces backed by an Arab coalition loyal to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
A Kuwaiti passenger jet carrying the Houthi team accompanied by UN special envoy Martin Griffiths left the Houthiheld capital Sanaa for Sweden, a Reuters reporter said. Hadi’s government is expected to follow the group, whose attendance was secured after the evacuation of 50 wounded Houthis for treatment in Oman on Monday.
Previous talks in September collapsed when the Houthis failed to show up. The warring parties are expected to convene in Sweden as early as Wednesday to discuss confidence-building measures and a transitional governing body, as the US Senate is set to consider a resolution to end support for the coalition in the war.
Outrage over the Oct 2 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has intensified international scrutiny of Saudi activities in the region, potentially giving Western powers, which provide arms and intelligence to the coalition, more leverage to demand action. Germany, Denmark and Sweden have suspended arms exports to Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi’s killing and the Yemen war.
The United States halted refuelling support for coalition warplanes, whose air strikes have been blamed for many civilian deaths. The Western-backed Arab alliance intervened in the war in 2015 to restore Hadi’s government, which Houthi forces ousted from Sanaa in 2014, but has bogged down in military stalemate. Residents in the port of Hodeidah, now a focus of the war, were fearful of renewed fighting if the talks failed as each side fortified their positions in the Houthi-held Red Sea city after a period of reduced hostilities.
“The situation here does not make us optimistic that we will avoid war,” said 51-year-old government employee Mohammed Taher. The conflict, seen as a proxy war between the Saudis and Iran, has left over 8 million Yemenis facing famine although the United Nations has warned this could rise to 14 million. Three-quarters of the population, or 22 million, rely on aid. World Food Programme chief David Beasley said in Geneva that an upcoming food security report would show an increase in severe hunger rates in Yemen – where a child dies every 11 minutes – but not necessarily meet the criteria of famine.
UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said Yemen’s government will need billions of dollars in external support to finance its 2019 budget and avoid another currency collapse, in addition to $4 billion in aid.
UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said on Tuesday that the Sweden talks are a “critical opportunity”. “A sustainable Yemeni-led political solution offers the best chance to ending the current crisis. A stable state, important for the region, cannot coexist with unlawful militias,” he said.
Sweden’s foreign ministry has yet to announce the venue of the talks, which will focus on reopening Sanaa airport and securing a prisoner swap and a truce in Hodeidah, the entry point for most of Yemen’s commercial goods and vital aid. This would serve as a foundation for a wider ceasefire that would halt coalition air strikes that have killed thousands of civilians and Houthi missile attacks on Saudi cities. “Yemenis need immediate relief as a stepping stone to longer term hope. The focus of the talks on the future management of the Hodeidah port and city and de-escalation of the fighting are important and welcome,”
David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement. The last available UN figure for the civilian death toll was in 2016 and stood at more than 10,000. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, which tracks violence in Yemen, puts it at around 57,000 people.
The humanitarian crisis in Yemen, already the world’s worst, will deteriorate in 2019, the UN said Tuesday, warning that the number of people needing food aid is set to jump by four million. The grim forecast for the embattled country came as the United Nations humanitarian office OCHA released its projected needs assessments for next year. “The country with the biggest problem in 2019 is going to be Yemen,” OCHA chief Mark Lowcock told reporters in Geneva. He said that in 2017, the UN was providing food assistance to three million people a month.
That figure rose to eight million per month this year and is expected to hit 12 million in 2019, Lowcock added. The crisis in Yemen spiralled after a Saudi-led coalition launched an offensive to support the government against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in March of 2015. The situation has worsened in recent months due to a broad economic collapse and rising violence in the rebelheld port of Hodeida, a crucial import hub for food and other basic supplies.
Lowcock said the UN is asking for $4 billion (3.5 billion euros) to help suffering Yemenis next year. Overall, 24 million people in Yemen – roughly 75 percent of the population – will need humanitarian assistance in 2019. Lowcock noted that the government will also need additional budget support from other countries to pay salaries and pensions in order to contain wider suffering.