Yemen war rivals lash out as United Nations talks start

Blanche Robertson
December 8, 2018

Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani, who heads the Saudi-backed government's delegation to the UN-sponsored talks in Sweden, told AFP his team would follow through with a planned prisoner swap with the Houthi rebels - but refused to compromise on the flashpoint port city of Hodeida, home to Yemen's most valuable port.

Hopes were high that the talks wouldn't deteriorate into further violence as in the past, and that the prisoner exchange would be an important first step toward building confidence between highly distrustful adversaries.

Griffiths said the prisoner swap agreed at the start of the talks would reunite thousands of families. At least 5,000 prisoners are to come, according to the International Committee of the Red cross.

One idea likely to be discussed at the talks is a proposal for the rebels to hand over Hodeida to some type of United Nations administration. In Yemen, the internationally-recognized government is fighting with the support of Saudi Arabia and the United States against the Houthi rebels, which are in turn supported by Iran.

The talks in the Swedish town of Rimbo, north of Stockholm, aim to setup "a framework for negotiations" on a future peace agreement, Griffiths said, calling the coming days were a milestone nonetheless and urging the parties "to work in good faith ... to deliver a message of peace".

According to a statement released by the UN, Griffiths extended his appreciation to the Swedish government for hosting the "direct consultations" between the Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels and Saudi-led coalition backing the Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi government in Yemen.

The civil war in Yemen has the most serious humanitarian crisis in the world. Saudi Arabia has come under heavy US pressure since the killing of Khashoggi, and the Houthis are under intense financial strain.

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The other main route in and out of Houthi territory is the Sanaa airport, but access is restricted by the Saudi-led coalition which controls the air space.

World Food Program's spokesman Herve Verhoosel says the "ambitious undertaking" finalizes plans in the works in recent months to reach 12 million people with food and nutritional supplements through January, from between 7-8 million now. Sources in both camps have held firm to their demands in Sweden, as battles continue to rage back home, particularly in the flashpoint Red Sea city of Hodeida.

The Houthi delegation arrived in Stockholm late Tuesday, accompanied by Griffiths.

It's the most positive step in years and comes as aid groups warn of worsening food shortages for millions of people.

The target population includes some 3 million women and children who need special support to prevent malnutrition.

Wallstrom told the Yemeni delegates: "Now it is up to you, the Yemini parties". Verhoosel said the rollout will require "safe, immediate and unimpeded access for food and other vital supplies".

Aid agencies and the UN have put relentless pressure on the Saudis, backed by the United Arab Emirates, not to mount a full-scale assault on the port, but the Saudis see its capture as the gateway to a military victory that has eluded them since 2015.

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