Yemen warring sides may hold new talks in January

Mediators in the UN-brokered talks on Yemen pushed for a truce between the warring parties as a crucial step to allow aid deliveries.
Wednesday 12/12/2018
Yemen's Minister of Culture, Marwan Dammaj answers, journalists' questions in Rimbo, Sweden, on December 12. (AFP)
Yemen's Minister of Culture, Marwan Dammaj answers, journalists' questions in Rimbo, Sweden, on December 12. (AFP)

RIMBO, Sweden – A Yemeni official said the next round of peace talks between the country’s warring sides could take place as early as January.

Marwan Dammaj, culture minister in Yemen’s internationally recognized government, said the venue and the exact timing are still being considered.

Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the government side, supported by a Saudi-led coalition, are to wrap up the current round of UN-sponsored negotiations in Sweden on Thursday.

Dammaj said the two sides are currently discussing the UN envoy’s proposals on the embattled port city of Hodeida and the airport in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital.

He said the government wants the rebels to withdraw from Hodeida, after which the sides could discuss other steps, including allowing UN oversight and setting up a local, pre-war administration of the city.

Mediators in the UN-brokered talks on Yemen pushed Wednesday for a truce between the warring parties as a crucial step to allow aid deliveries, with 24 hours left in the negotiations.

Mediators are seeking a de-escalation of violence in two flashpoint cities: rebel-held Hodeida, a port city vital to the supply of humanitarian aid, and Taiz, Yemen’s third largest city, scene of some of the war’s most intense fighting.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was due at the talks in Rimbo, Sweden, late Wednesday for Thursday’s closing round of consultations. His arrival comes hours after his office said it had evidence the rebel Houthis were using Iran-made missiles.

Both government and rebel representatives traded accusations of unwillingness to negotiate, particularly on rebel-held Hodeida, the main route for 90 percent of food imports and nearly 80 percent of aid deliveries.

Multiple draft proposals have been submitted to the two delegations over the past week. None have found consensus as yet.

“It’s slow progress,” rebel representative Abdelmalik al-Ajri told AFP. “We are faced with the intransigence of the other side. “Things should become clearer today.”

“Nothing has changed as of now,” said Othman Mujalli, Yemen’s agriculture minister and a member of the government’s Sweden negotiation team.

“But the issue today is the airport, the final touches. Today’s discussion is around (Sanaa airport), which will be a domestic airport for flights that have been searched during a stop in Aden.”

Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani this week proposed government-held Aden as Yemen’s sole international airport, with Sanaa turning into a hub for domestic flights.

The government accuses the rebels of arms smuggling through Sanaa airport and the Red Sea port of Hodeida, and the Saudi-led coalition has severely restricted flights to and from Sanaa for years.

Both Mujalli and Dammaj told reporters Wednesday their camp would hold firm to UN Security Council Resolution 2216 — which calls for the Houthis to withdraw from all areas seized in a 2014 takeover, including Hodeida.

The rebels have refused a full withdrawal.

The Yemen conflict has killed nearly 10,000 people since the Saudi-led coalition joined the war in 2015, according to the World Health Organization, triggering what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Both parties stand accused of failing to protect civilians. 

Ambassadors from countries that are permanent members of the Security Council – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States – joined talks with delegation heads on Tuesday, sources said.

Western nations, some of which supply arms and intelligence to the Saudi-led coalition, want an end to nearly four years of war.

US President Donald Trump told Reuters on Tuesday he could abide by legislation being considered by the Senate to end US support for the Saudi-led war effort.

“I hate to see what’s going on in Yemen,” Trump said. “But it takes two to tango. I’d want to see Iran pull out of Yemen too. Because – and I think they will.”

Some progress has been made since the talks were launched last week with a prisoner swap deal. The two sides on Tuesday exchanged lists of about 15,000 prisoners to be released under supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Coalition leaders Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates want to exit a costly conflict bogged down in stalemate since 2015 after the alliance seized the southern port of Aden, the government’s current base.

A small group of southern Yemenis staged a protest outside the venue of UN peace talks in Sweden on Wednesday demanding a referendum to restore independence.

Waving the flag of former south Yemen — featuring a bright blue triangle with a red star — some 30 southerners called for freedom under the watchful eye of Swedish police.

Southern Yemen was an independent country until the 1990 unification under President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a northerner who ruled for more than three decades and was killed by his rebel allies in 2017.

The south has long complained of neglect and marginalisation — grievances which did not disappear under current President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, who is himself a southerner and leads the country during a time of devastating war.

Multiple protesters told AFP they were seeking a referendum on southern independence and shouted “Free, free South Arabia” with a loudspeaker.

Southerners had complained of under-representation in the run-up to the Sweden talks. The government and rebel delegations include one southerner each, allied with the respective party.

“We are the children of the south,” Hend Omairan, a southern Yemeni activist, told AFP.

“We are here today to send a message to the government and the UN special envoy: why is the south not represented in this conversation, in these consultations?”

(AW and agencies)