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US says Yemen peace talks set for December, Saudis ‘fully on board’

Phil Stewart, Reuters | US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in Singapore, October 18, 2018.

Peace talks aimed at ending the war in Yemen have been set for early December in Sweden, with Houthi rebels, the UN-recognised government and a Saudi-led coalition all expected to take part, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Wednesday.

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Mattis said the Saudis and United Arab Emirates who have backed President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in the brutal three-year-old war "are fully on board, by the way".

"It looks like very, very early in December, up in Sweden, we'll see both the Houthi rebel side and the UN-recognised government, President Hadi's government, will be up there," the defense secretary said.

Mattis' comments came as UN envoy Martin Griffiths was in Sanaa for talks with rebel leaders to push them to join the peace talks in Sweden.

The Houthis failed to show up to peace talks in Switzerland in September, leading to the collapse of that effort to end the fighting.

The Shiite rebels have said repeatedly that they need stronger security guarantees from the international community that they will be given safe passage through the crippling air and sea blockade the coalition has enforced since March 2015.

The international community is demanding in return that the Houthis halt all offensive operations, particularly missile attacks on neighbouring Saudi Arabia, and commit to joining talks on handing control of the key port of city of Hodeida to the UN.

UN envoy’s ‘sternest test’

UN agencies say up to 14 million Yemenis are at risk of starvation if fighting closes the embattled port of Hodeida, a gateway for humanitarian aid.

Under heavy Western pressure, the government and its Saudi-led military backers have largely suspended a five-month-old offensive on the Red Sea port city as Griffiths spearheads the biggest peace push in two years.

But Hodeida residents reported clashes just hours ahead of the UN envoy’s arrival, and a devastating all-out assault still looms as the coalition eyes a key victory in its war with the Houthis.

"Griffiths faces the sternest test of his young tenure," said Brussels-based think tank International Crisis Group.

"If his mediation efforts succeed in preventing a destructive battle for Hodeida, he could build momentum toward reviving a peace process,” the ICG added.

Britain on Monday presented to the UN Security Council a draft resolution urging an immediate truce in Hodeida and setting a two-week deadline for the warring sides to remove barriers to humanitarian aid.

"The only solution is for all the parties to set aside their arms, cease missile and air attacks on populated areas and pursue a peaceful political settlement," British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told parliament on Wednesday.

He said the draft resolution was "designed to get a consensus from both sides that allow talks to start before the end of this month in Stockholm".

Fallout from Khashoggi murder

The rebels overran Sanaa in late 2014, when they also took control of Hodeida and its port. A year later, the coalition intervened as President Hadi fled into Saudi exile.

Both parties in the conflict stand accused of acts that could amount to war crimes.

Although Western governments have condemned civilian deaths in Yemen, they remain political and military backers of Saudi Arabia, a regional ally that buys billions of dollars-worth of arms from the United States, Britain, and France.

Those governments have come under growing domestic pressure to scale back arms deliveries since the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul last month.

The World Health Organization says nearly 10,000 people – mostly civilians – have been killed in Yemen since the Saudi-led intervention began.

Human rights groups believe the real toll may be five times higher.

Save the Children said Wednesday that based on UN figures, between March 2015 and this October some 85,000 children under five may have died of severe malnutrition or related diseases.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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