UN Yemen envoy to visit battleground port ahead of peace talks

File photo of an eight-year-old malnourished boy lies on a bed in the emergency ward of a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen. Photograph:( Reuters )

AFP Sanaa, Yemen Nov 22, 2018, 05.57 PM (IST)

The United Nations envoy to Yemen will visit the rebel-held battleground port city of Hodeida this week, a UN source said Thursday, as he presses warring parties to uphold pledges to join peace talks.

Martin Griffiths, who arrived in the rebel-held capital Sanaa on Wednesday, was in the Arabian Peninsula country to lay the groundwork for next month's negotiations in Sweden.

The British diplomat's visit to Hodeida on Friday was aimed at encouraging Iran-aligned Huthi rebels and government forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition to stay calm ahead of the talks in Stockholm, the UN source said.

The conflict in Yemen, which escalated when the Saudi-led alliance intervened in 2015, has killed thousands and sparked what the United Nations has called the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

UN agencies say up to 14 million Yemenis would be at risk of starvation if fighting closes the port of Hodeida, through which nearly all of the country's imports and humanitarian aid pass.

Both sides have in the past week expressed support for the envoy and his mission to hold discussions, but military officials have said that intermittent clashes continued to erupt in the Red Sea city of Hodeida.

Mohammed Ali al-Huthi, head of the rebels' Higher Revolutionary Committee and an influential political figure, said the rebels were ready for peace.

"We support peace. We are ready for peace if that is what they (the Saudi-led coalition) want," he told reporters after meeting Griffiths on Thursday.

"I do not think anyone can doubt our desire for peace," he said, adding the envoy would hold talks with rebel chief Abdulmalik al-Huthi before heading to Hodeida.

'Fully on board'

United States Defence Secretary Jim Mattis confirmed on Wednesday peace discussions between the Huthis and the internationally-recognised government would take place early December.

He said Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates -- which is also a key member of the military coalition supporting the loyalists -- were "fully on board".

"It looks like that very, very early in December, up in Sweden, we'll see both the Huthi rebel side and the UN-recognised government, President (Abedrabbo Mansour) Hadi's government, will be up there."

Mattis last month made a surprise call for a ceasefire in Yemen and urged warring parties to enter negotiations within the next 30 days.

The UN has now pushed that deadline back to the end of the year.

Mattis' latest comments came as the US State Department said talks must not be delayed any longer.

The United States has been providing bombs and other weapons, as well as intelligence support, to the Saudi-led coalition backing Hadi, but recently ended its refuelling support for Saudi warplanes.

On Monday, Britain presented to the UN Security Council a draft resolution urging an immediate truce in Hodeida.

The draft, circulated by Britain to the 14 other council members, and seen by AFP, sets a two-week deadline for the warring sides to remove all barriers to humanitarian aid.

The proposed resolution would significantly ratchet up pressure on the Saudi-led coalition and the Huthis to seek a negotiated settlement in Yemen, where millions are on the brink of starvation.

It also calls for a large injection of foreign cash to support Yemen's collapsing currency and for salaries of civil servants, teachers, and health workers to be paid within a month.

UN peace efforts

Griffiths -- whose efforts at kickstarting peace talks in September collapsed -- is spearheading the biggest push in two years to end the war.

In September, a previous round of UN-led peace talks faltered when the Huthis refused to travel to Geneva, accusing the world body of failing to guarantee their delegation's return to Sanaa or secure the evacuation of wounded rebels to Oman.

Previous talks broke down in 2016, when 108 days of negotiations in Kuwait failed to yield a deal and left rebel delegates stranded in Oman for three months.

A UN panel of experts has accused both the Huthis and the Saudi-led coalition of acts that could amount to war crimes.

According to the World Health Organization, nearly 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict, though some rights groups estimate the toll could be five times higher.

The World Food Programme says up to 14 million Yemenis are at risk of starvation, and 18-19 million are "food insecure".

Story highlights

The United Nations envoy to Yemen will visit the rebel-held battleground port city of Hodeida this week, a UN source said Thursday, as he presses warring parties to uphold pledges to join peace talks.