Yemen's government says it's ready to restart peace talks with Houthis

#YemenWar

Announcement comes after Saudi-led strikes in Hodeidah kill 110 rebels over last three days, including 23 killed on Wednesday

The Norwegian Refugee Council's Jeremy Taylor said 'what we really want now is political pressure on the parties in the way that the US can' (Reuters)
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Thursday 1 November 2018 11:51 UTC
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Yemen's government said on Thursday that it is ready to restart peace talks with Houthi rebels, as international pressure to end the years-long conflict intensifies.

The United Nations said a day earlier that it aimed to relaunch the talks within a month, after a previous attempt collapsed in September when the rebels refused to attend.

"The Republic of Yemen welcomes all efforts to restore peace," a government statement carried by the state-run Saba news agency said.

"The government of Yemen is ready to immediately launch talks on the process of confidence-building, primarily the release of all detainees and prisoners, as well as those who have been abducted or subject to enforced disappearance."

The announcement comes just two days after Yemeni government officials said that the Saudi-led coalition waging the war against the Houthis had deployed 10,000 troops to the Red Sea coast, ahead of a new offensive on Hodeidah "within days".

About 110 rebels have been killed in air strikes in Hodeidah province in the past three days, including 23 killed on Wednesday, three medics from different hospitals in the area said.

Two military officials with pro-government forces said three air strikes were conducted on Wednesday, while 15 have been carried out since Monday.

The Houthis refused to travel to Geneva for the planned September peace talks, accusing the UN of failing to guarantee their delegation's return to the Yemeni capital Sanaa and to secure the evacuation of wounded rebels to Oman.

[The US statement] has not been backed by concrete, genuine action or a full-scale diplomatic effort to solve the conflict

Waleed Alhariri, Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies

Previous talks broke down in 2016, when 108 days of negotiations in Kuwait between the government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi and the rebels failed to yield a deal.

The UN said on Thursday that it aimed to re-launch peace talks "within a month," shortly after the US called for the warring parties to come to the negotiating table.

UN envoy Martin Griffiths welcomed on Wednesday calls for an immediate resumption of talks and a ceasefire in Yemen.

"I urge all concerned parties to seize this opportunity to engage constructively with our current efforts to swiftly resume political consultations to agree on a framework for political negotiations," he said in a statement.

"We remain committed to bring the Yemeni parties to the negotiations table within a month."

Sweden venue

On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had urged all parties, including US allies in the coalition, to end the fighting.

Pompeo said: "The United States calls on all parties to support UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths in finding a peaceful solution to the conflict in Yemen based on the agreed references.

"The time is now for the cessation of hostilities, including missile and UAV strikes from Houthi-controlled areas into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

"Subsequently, coalition air strikes must cease in all populated areas in Yemen."

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said on Tuesday that Saudi Arabia and its coalition partner the United Arab Emirates were ready for talks.

"We have got to move toward a peace effort here, and we can't say we are going to do it some time in the future," Mattis said at the US Institute of Peace in Washington.

"We need to be doing this in the next 30 days," he added.

Mattis said that the US is calling for the warring sides to meet with Griffiths in Sweden in November, the AFP news agency reported.

British Prime Minister Theresa May welcomed the US position on Wednesday and said Griffiths had spoken with Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt the previous evening.

"They agreed that the UK will continue to encourage all parties to agree to deescalation, and to that lasting political deal, which will ensure that any ceasefire will hold in the long-term," May told parliament.

'Business as usual'

On Wednesday, May's government was accused of continuing "business as usual" with Saudi Arabia to score post-Brexit deals despite the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom's consulate in Turkey earlier this month.

The accusation, delivered by Labour MP Ian Murray, came as Hunt was grilled by the UK parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee.

The UK government, along with other Western governments that sell arms to partners in the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, has faced increasing pressure for its support of the war in the wake of the journalist's murder on 2 October.

[The UN] has been running out of adjectives to describe how bad things are

Jeremy Taylor, Norwegian Refugee Council

Murray told Hunt that the public listening to his comments and those of UK Middle East Minister Alistair Burt this week would be "quite right to conclude that the UK government have said [it's] business as usual with the Saudi Arabians".

During Wednesday's hearing, Hunt suggested that the UK would push a UN resolution for a ceasefire in Yemen if UN Griffith's plan led to a sustained cessation of hostilities in the country.

"No one would be more delighted than we would to be in a position to lay a resolution that meant that a ceasefire happened and held," he said.

"But at the moment, our judgement is just that it's a bit too premature. So we want to create the conditions for this US-backed, Martin Griffith's plan."

Waleed Alhariri, who heads the US operations of the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, noted that there have been previous ceasefire attempts that quickly unravelled.

The US statement "might be a sign of frustration by the US administration that things are getting out of hand. Or maybe it's a way of saying that they are trying to do something but cannot, and are blaming the warring parties that they cannot resolve the conflict," Alhariri said.

"It's a good diplomatic statement but it has not been backed by concrete, genuine action or a full-scale diplomatic effort to solve the conflict," he told AFP.

Jeremy Taylor, the regional advocacy advisor in charge of Yemen for the Norwegian Refugee Council humanitarian group, called the ceasefire call "long overdue".

Saying that the United Nations "has been running out of adjectives to describe how bad things are," Taylor voiced hope that a ceasefire could offer humanitarian workers a chance at least to try to halt further deterioration.

"We have been asking for years for this kind of statement. What we really want now is political pressure on the parties in the way that the US can," he said

Hodeidah offensive

Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened in the conflict between Hadi, whose government is recognised by the United Nations, and the Houthis in 2015.

The coalition has been waging an aerial bombing campaign in Yemen aimed at pushing the Huthis back, but the rebels still hold the key port city of Hodeidah and the capital Sanaa.

After the UN-backed talks collapsed in September, the coalition announced it was relaunching an assault on Hodeidah, whose port serves as an entry point for more than 70 percent of imports into the impoverished country.

At least 56,000 people have been killed in armed violence in Yemen since January 2016, according to data collected by an independent research group, a tally that is more than five times higher than previously reported.

The new figure encompasses the deaths of both combatants and civilians in Yemen between January 2016 and 20 October 2018, according to Andrea Carboni, a research analyst at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.

"The fatality numbers refer to the number of people that were killed as a direct consequence of armed violence," Carboni told Middle East Eye on Monday.

Both the Houthis and Saudi Arabia along with its allies stand accused of transgressions that could amount to war crimes.

The coalition has been blacklisted by the UN for the maiming and killing of children in a country where 14 million people now face starvation.