KUWAIT CITY, April 21, (AFP): UN-brokered peace talks to end 13 months of armed conflict in Yemen opened Thursday in Kuwait with a call for compromise between the rebel and government delegations from the impoverished state. The talks were originally slated to start on Monday but rebels stayed away in protest at alleged Saudi violations of a ceasefire, in effect since April 11.
The rebel delegation from the Shiite Houthi militia and allied representatives of ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh arrived just hours before the talks finally started. Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al- Hamad Al-Sabah of host country Kuwait opened the meeting by hailing the talks as “a historic opportunity” to end the bloodshed.
“War will only lead to more devastation, losses and displacement of people,” he said. UN special envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed appealed to the warring parties to work to reach a comprehensive and durable accord. “Today, you have one of two options; a secure nation that guarantees an honourable life or the ruins of a nation,” he said. Ould Cheikh Ahmed called for “compromise” solutions and stressed that Yemen was “closer to peace than any time before.”
More than 6,400 people have been killed and almost 2.8 million displaced since a Saudi-led Arab coalition began operations in March 2015 against the Iran-backed rebels who have swathes of territory, including the capital Sanaa. The United Nations has been pushing the talks that it hopes will end a conflict that has been exploited by jihadists and sent tensions between Shiite Iran and its Gulf Arab neighbours soaring.
President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi had sent a message to Ould Cheikh Ahmed rejecting “rebel conditions to modify the agreed agenda”, according to a member of the government delegation. Hadi’s representatives arrived in Kuwait City at the weekend and threatened to pull out if meetings did not begin on Thursday. Mahdi al-Mashat, a representative of rebel leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi, said Wednesday the rebels had been assured that the agenda for the talks would be “clear and tackle issues that could help achieve peaceful solutions”.
Writing on Facebook, Mashat warned however that “we will have the right to suspend our participation” if the assurances are not met. Diplomats say rebels are demanding an end of the Arab coalition operations and a naval blockade on Yemen. They also want UN sanctions against some of their leaders, including Saleh, to be lifted. Saudi Arabia’s ally Turkey said on Thursday that it has frozen assets belonging to Saleh and his son, in line with the sanctions. Saleh amassed billions of dollars and stashed assets in at least 20 countries during his 33 years in power, according to a UN report released last year. US President Barack Obama was Thursday in Saudi Arabia, where he was expected to discuss the wars in Yemen and Syria with Gulf leaders.
Ben Rhodes, one of Obama’s closest foreign policy advisers, urged all Yemeni warring sides to participate “constructively” in the Kuwait talks. A political solution would “allow for a focus on (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) AQAP in Yemen,” he said. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group have gained ground in the governmentheld south, carrying out attacks against officials. Yemen’s rebels seized control of Sanaa in 2014 before expanding, forcing Hadi’s government to declare main southern city Aden as the temporary capital. And while the loyalists managed since July to reclaim large areas, they have been unable to dislodge the rebels from Sanaa and other key areas.
Fighting has continued on several fronts, military sources said, as each side blamed the other for truce breaches. The rebels fired a Katyusha rocket late Wednesday on the loyalist-held city of Marib, east of the capital, according to an AFP journalist there. Pro-government military sources reported heavy fighting in Nahm, northeast of Sanaa, and sporadic clashes elsewhere. The rebels said on their sabanews.net website that coalition warplanes carried out two strikes on Nahm and flew sorties over other areas, including Sanaa.