Race to broker truce as Yemen talks enter final hours
RIMBO, Sweden – With just hours left before the close of negotiations, UN mediators rushed to broker a truce Wednesday, December 12, between government representatives and rebels in Yemen, a country teetering on the brink of famine.
The UN talks opened last week in Sweden, the first meeting in two years between Yemen's Huthi rebels and the government of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, backed since 2015 by a behemoth military coalition led by Saudi Arabia.
Taiz, the southwestern city controlled by the government and surrounded by the rebels, is no longer under discussion at the talks, scheduled to close on Thursday, December 13.
The city has been the scene of some of the most intense fighting in a war that has pushed 14 million people to the edge of famine.
Intense talks, however, were continuing on Sanaa airport, shut down for years in the conflict between the Saudi-backed government and northern rebels linked to Iran.
Negotiators are also seeking a de-escalation of violence in rebel-held Hodeida, a port city vital to the supply of humanitarian aid, and a cooperation deal on the country's crumbling economy.
Hodeida, the lifeline to millions dependent on aid to survive, is home to major frontlines.
Another round of talks has been tentatively scheduled for January, according to UN and Yemeni officials.
The head of the Huthis' revolutionary council, Mohammed Ali Huthi, on Wednesday said the insurgents had proposed Yemen's rebel-held capital, Sanaa, to host the next round.
A UN official said the organization had received no such request.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was due at the talks in Rimbo, Sweden, for Thursday's closing round of consultations.
Ahead of the UN's chief's arrival, his office said it had evidence the rebel Huthis were using Iran-made missiles – a charge the Saudi-led alliance levels against the rebels as grounds for restrictions on the Hodeida port and Sanaa airport.
Both government and rebel representatives have traded accusations of unwillingness to negotiate, particularly on rebel-held Hodeida, the main route for 90% of food imports and nearly 80% of aid deliveries.
UN special envoy Martin Griffiths has submitted a proposal on a political framework for the future of Yemen, an agreement on the reopening of Sanaa airport, a paper on addressing the economic situation and a draft agreement on Hodeida, spokeswoman Hanan Badawi told reporters.
"The two parties have officially received the drafts and we are waiting on a response," Badawi said.
Members of both delegations contacted by Agence France-Presse (AFP) said agreements could be signed by morning.
Yemeni Prime Minister Moeen Abdulmalik Saeed told AFP a full agreement on Hodeida was unlikely "given the time constraints".
Abdelmagid al-Hanash, of the Huthi delegation, told AFP an agreement on Sanaa airport was close, with the rebels open to a government proposal for flight searches in Sayoun or Aden, two cities under the control of the state.
"For now, the search will be in Aden but will not cause harm or trouble. No one will be asked to disembark," Hanash said.
An advisor to the government team, speaking on condition of anonymity, said his delegation would not confirm any agreement until the documents had been signed.
Yemeni ministers Othman Mujalli and Marwan Dammaj told reporters Wednesday their camp would hold firm to UN Security Council Resolution 2216 – which calls for the Huthis to withdraw from all areas seized in a 2014 takeover, including Hodeida.
Representatives of both the Huthis and government contacted by AFP late Wednesday blamed the other party for the lack of a truce on Hodeida.
The last official statement by a spokesman for the Saudi-led government coalition said military operations were ongoing in Hodeida on Monday night, December 10.
Saudi soldiers on missing list
The two camps signed a mass prisoner exchange deal at the Sweden talks, which two Yemeni government officials confirmed include Saudi soldiers fighting alongside state troops. The Huthis had said Tuesday, December 11, that the list included Saudi soldiers.
A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition and a UN official did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The prisoner swap includes the names of more than 15,000 detainees and disappeared persons taken on frontlines since 2015.
The deal will be overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which warns the exchange could take weeks.
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. The Saudi-led alliance has been blacklisted by the UN for the killing and maiming of children. – Rappler.com