84 dead in Yemen fighting

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Talks failure opens way to escalation

Yemenis attend the funeral of members of the same family on October 8, 2016 a day after they were killed by a Saudi airstrike that hit their house in Bajil in the western province of Houdieda. (AFP photo)

KHOKHA, Yemen, Sept 9, (AFP): Clashes and air strikes have left 84 people dead around Yemen’s Red Sea port city of Hodeida since the collapse of UN-brokered peace talks, hospital sources said Sunday. The sources in Hodeida province, controlled by Houthi rebels, said 11 soldiers and 73 insurgents had been killed since the talks were abandoned on Saturday.

Dozens of rebels and at least 17 soldiers had been wounded. The pro-government coalition, which includes Saudi and UAE air forces, has been pushing to close in on Hodeida, the entry point for some 70 percent of Yemen’s imports including food and aid, since June. The coalition on Sunday was positioned to attempt to seize the main road linking Sanaa, the rebelheld capital, to the port city, a military official told AFP.

The road is a key supply route for the Houthis. In July, the coalition announced a temporary ceasefire in Hodeida to give a chance to UNbrokered peace talks. But UN attempts to hold peace talks between Yemen’s Saudi-backed government and the Houthis, linked to Saudi Arabia’s archrival Iran, were abandoned on Saturday, sparking fears of an escalation in the conflict. The rebels refused to leave Yemen for Geneva, saying the UN had not met their demands – including a plane to transport their wounded to nearby Oman and a guarantee their delegation would be allowed to return to Sanaa. In 2014, the Houthis seized control of a string of Red Sea ports and the capital, driving the government out of Sanaa and the president into exile.

In 2015, Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened in the conflict to bolster President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi, recognised by the UN as Yemen’s president. They now control Yemen’s airspace. Nearly 10,000 people have since been killed and the country now stands at the brink of famine. The collapse of UN efforts to organise peace talks between the Yemeni government and rebels is likely to lead to an escalation in the country’s war, analysts say.

Long-awaited talks between the Saudi-backed government and Houthi rebels linked to Iran were set to start Thursday but failed to take place. The Houthis, armed tribesmen from northern Yemen, refused to leave Sanaa to attend the talks, saying the UN had failed to guarantee the return of their delegation from Geneva to the Yemeni capital and to secure the evacuation of wounded rebels to Oman. With hopes of political conciliation dashed, experts fear both the rebels and Saudi-backed troops will turn to more violence. “We will almost certainly see a military escalation, as the initial failure of Geneva will deepen the Saudi-led coalition’s conviction that only further losses on the battlefield will cause the Houthis to compromise,” said Graham Griffith, senior analyst at the UAE-based consultancy Control Risks. “However, the military campaign is likely to be hampered by the additional scrutiny the coalition is facing over its conduct in the war,” he added.

The Saudi-led coalition has drawn heavy international criticism for the high civilian death toll from its more than three-year-old bombing campaign in Yemen. Coalition commanders have admitted a small number of mistakes but accuse the rebels of routinely using civilians as human shields. The head of the Houthi rebels, for his part, on Saturday issued a message of defiance. “Our choice is steadfastness and resistance to aggression,” said Abdulmalik al-Houthi. “We must move on all fronts to recruit for our defence.” The Geneva talks were abandoned on Saturday as fresh fighting broke out on the ground. Analysts say the failure to bring Yemeni representatives to the summit, which would have been the first since lengthy talks in Kuwait collapsed in 2016, will only raise mistrust between the government and rebels. “The peace talks did not begin, and because there is no peace process to be considered that means there are fewer constraints in place for the behaviour of both sides on the ground,” said security and defence analyst Aleksandar Mitreski. “While there is mistrust between the actors, as much as there is in any conflict of this kind, I believe the failure of the peace process is due to the imbalance of power between the two sides,” said Mitreski, researcher at the University of Sydney.

Yemen’s government on Saturday accused UN envoy Martin Griffiths of defending the rebels. Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani criticised Griffiths for “appeasing” the Houthis by refusing to lay blame for the failure of the talks squarely on their shoulders. “The UN, unfortunately, does not have the capability to be the equaliser,” said Mitreski.

Nearly 10,000 people have been killed since Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened on behalf of the government in 2015, triggering what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Griffiths is UN’s third Yemen envoy since 2014, when Houthis overran the capital and drove Hadi’s government into exile. All previous attempts to resolve the conflict have failed. The envoy said Saturday he would travel to Muscat and Sanaa in the coming days to lay the groundwork for future talks, but hinted he might initially engage in separate discussions with the two sides.

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