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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

UN special envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths to visit battleground port city of Hodeidah

The UN envoy to Yemen will visit the rebel-held battleground of Hodeidah later this week as international pressure builds for peace talks.

Martin Griffiths will likely visit on Friday, a diplomatic source close to the envoy told The National, after his initial travel plan was delayed by an outbreak of fighting. "He is expected to hold talks with Houthi representatives in the city as well visit the ports, Al Thawra hospital and hold meetings with officials from the World Health Programme."

Government forces retook parts of the city from the Iran-backed Houthi rebels this month, but the city's port, the entry point for most of Yemen's food imports and aid shipments, remains under the control of the rebels. Aid agencies have warned that the fighting threatens medical facilities in the city and is driving the country closer to famine.

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Negotiations on ending the war are expected in early December in Sweden, although no date has been set.

More than three years of conflict between the rebels and pro-government forces backed by the Saudi-led Arab military coalition have left eight million Yemeni civilians severely affected by food shortages and plunged the country into economic crisis.

A UN-brokered attempt at peace talks in September collapsed after the rebels refused to travel to Geneva.

"We are expecting the Houthis to show up to Sweden this time around, but we believe their participation will not be genuine," a Yemeni official told The National.

"We are dealing with an organisation that resembles ISIS, it is brutal and cannot be trusted," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. He said the rebels must abide by confidence-building measures that Mr Griffiths has arranged.

"The UN envoy is trying to building trust with the Houthis, that is his mission in Yemen. The rebels need to release prisoners and hand over the port of Hodeidah to the UN," he said.

Martin Griffiths arriving in Sanaa on November 21. Reuters
Martin Griffiths arriving in Sanaa on November 21. Reuters

Mr Griffiths arrived in Sanaa on Wednesday for talks with Houthi leaders as the push for peace gathered momentum with both the UAE, a leading coalition member, and the United States voicing support for the negotiations.

The move puts the onus directly on the parties themselves — the Houthis and the government of Yemen — to come to the table and take it seriously, Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, told The National.

"What's important between now and December is that all sides avoid any moves — whether military or otherwise — that could undermine fragile confidence in the talks or even set back diplomacy altogether," Ms Dickinson said, adding that trust is key to getting the talks off the ground.

Yemeni pro-government forces patrol at a road in Hodeidah on November 15. EPA
Yemeni pro-government forces patrol at a road in Hodeidah on November 15. EPA

In an interview with Sky News Arabia, UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed said the talks in Sweden would be a first step towards a political solution between the government and the Houthi rebels.

“We are putting sincere efforts to provide the right atmosphere for the occasion, but it needs a Yemeni framework supported from regional countries and the United Nations,” Sheikh Abdullah said, while praising Mr Griffiths' role.

He said the UAE was “looking forward to the Stockholm talks, which may not be the last round of negotiations but we hope it would be a basis for more serious talks from the Houthis if they are serious about solving the crisis”.

The rebels refused to attend the talks in Geneva after setting last-minute conditions.

Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are now in a position to support the negotiations more, also given that their military position on the ground is stronger, Cinzia Bianco, a senior analyst at Gulf State Analytics told The National.

"We might see fighting intensifying ahead of the discussions in order for the parties to achieve a stronger position in terms of control on the ground," Ms Bianco said.

The UAE foreign minister blamed Iran for prolonging the conflict. “Were it not for Iranian intervention in Yemen, the Yemeni crisis would have ended a long time ago,” he said.

Sheikh Abdullah called Iran a “neighbouring country that deserves to be like any other country seeking development and serving its people”, but criticised the country’s leadership for placing its priorities elsewhere.

“I hope there are minds in Iran that desire stability in Iran and the region to change the current path.”

The UAE’s support came as the US State Department released another statement calling “for all parties to support Martin Griffiths by immediately ceasing hostilities and engaging in direct talks aimed at ending the conflict”.

Spokeswoman Heather Nauert referred to a statement by the UN special envoy that “the Houthis and the Republic of Yemen government are committed to attending the consultations in Sweden, and we call on the parties to follow through on that commitment”.

“The time for direct talks and building mutual confidence is now,” Ms Nauert said.

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Read more:

US and UAE declare support for Yemen talks next month

UN envoy Martin Griffiths arrives in Sanaa to lay groundwork for peace talks

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US Defence Secretary James Mattis also sounded upbeat in remarks to reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday. “It looks like very, very early in December up in Sweden we’ll see both the Houthi rebel side and the UN-recognised President Hadi government up there," he said.

“The Saudis and the Emiratis are fully on board."

The US Congress has been placing increasing pressure on the Trump administration to seek a political resolution to the conflict. Fear of a widespread humanitarian catastrophe and an economic collapse have triggered a sense of urgency to peace efforts. A report by the non-governmental organisation Save The Children on Tuesday estimated that about 85,000 children may have died of hunger in the war-ravaged country.