RIMBO, Sweden: Yemen’s government and rebels doubled down on their rival demands Thursday, just moments before hard-won peace talks were due to open in Sweden under the auspices of the United Nations.
Talks between the Saudi-backed government of Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi and Yemen’s Huthi rebels, linked to Riyadh’s archrival Iran, have been months in the making, with the UN sending its special envoy to Sanaa to personally escort the delegation to Sweden. They are slated to last for one week, according to a source in the UN.
The negotiations mark the first attempt in two years to broker an end to the Yemen conflict, which has killed at least 10,000 people since 2015 and triggered what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Warring parties struck a far from conciliatory tone in the moments before the talks were due to open in Rimbo, Sweden — a picturesque village some 60km north of Stockholm.
A top Huthi rebel official threatened Thursday to bar UN planes from using the Yemeni capital’s airport unless the peace negotiations lead to its full reopening.
“If the Yemeni capital’s airport is not opened to the Yemeni people in the peace talks in Sweden, I call on the (rebel) political council and government to close the airport for all planes,“ Mohammed Ali al-Huthi tweeted.
The Yemeni government immediately hit back, demanding the rebels disarm and withdraw from the flashpoint port city of Hodeida.
Yemen’s foreign ministry demanded the “coupist militias withdraw fully from the western coast and hand the area over to the legitimate government” via Twitter — a reference to rebel-held Hodeida, home to Yemen’s most valuable port.
The Saudi-led coalition has led an offensive to retake Hodeida, the last rebel stronghold on Yemen’s Red Sea coast, for months, sparking fears for more than 150,000 civilians trapped in the city as even hospitals were seized by militants.
List of demands
The roots of the conflict go back years, but a takeover of Yemeni territory by the Huthis triggered the 2015 intervention of Saudi Arabia and its allies on behalf of the Hadi government, widely considered a turning point in the war.
International pressure to end the Yemen conflict reached unprecedented heights in recent weeks, as all eyes turned to Saudi Arabia’s policies following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
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.
Sources close to the rebels say the Huthis had planned to request the reopening of Sanaa International Airport, which has been damaged by Saudi-led air raids and shut down by Riyadh and its allies, who control Yemen’s airspace.
A source in the government delegation said Hadi’s camp is seeking maps detailing landmines planted by the rebels.
Sources on both sides said they would demand a ceasefire — initiated by their rival — and the opening of humanitarian corridors.
The UN special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, on Thursday said he believed the Sweden talks could “bring good news for Hodeida and for the people of Yemen”.
“We have been working to reach a negotiated agreement to spare both the city and port the threat of destruction, and guarantee the full operation of the port,“ Griffiths wrote in a New York Times opinion piece.
Peace not on agenda
Some 14 million people are at imminent risk of starvation in Yemen, according to UN estimates.
The talks are not expected to yield a breakthrough in the conflict, with UN sources saying negotiations aim solidly for “confidence-building measures”.
The government and Huthis on Tuesday said they agreed to a prisoner swap, to be overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross, after the Sweden talks.
Saudi Arabia and its allies also allowed the Huthis to evacuate 50 wounded rebels from Sanaa for medical treatment in Oman.
Griffiths’ plans to host talks in Geneva in September collapsed on opening day after the rebels refused to leave the Yemeni capital, saying they feared they would not be allowed to return. — AFP