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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Yemen peace hopes rise as wounded Houthis cleared to leave country

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the move made prospects for peace talks later this month more real

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz talks to the UK's foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, in Riyadh. AP
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz talks to the UK's foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, in Riyadh. AP

The Arab coalition has given assurances that 50 wounded Houthi fighters can be evacuated to Oman for medical treatment as part of a package of confidence-building measures to clear the way for peace talks in Sweden later this month, the UK government said on Tuesday.

The move was announced after British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt travelled to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi for talks this week to try to eliminate the problems that led to the failure of talks in Geneva in September.

The issue of medical evacuations was one of the key stumbling blocks for those talks, which were abandoned after a Houthi delegation failed to show up. Saudi agreement for the removal of the wounded fighters is subject to conditions on who would travel with them, said Mr Hunt.

Mr Hunt said the Houthi rebels needed to do their part by ending missile and drone strikes against Saudi Arabia. “Those two are the things that provoke some of these strikes,” he said.

Special envoy Martin Griffiths, who is currently in Riyadh talking to key players in the three-year conflict, is due to brief the UN Security Council on Friday about attempts to prepare the ground for Sweden talks.

On Monday, he discussed with Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled Al Yamani plans to secure the release of prisoners at Houthi-controlled prisons in Riyadh. It was unclear if they discussed the release of Houthi prisoners.

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Britain has said it stands ready for a new resolution at the Security Council to support talks that are aiming to deliver a ceasefire in the conflict that has raged since 2015.

Sources close to the diplomatic efforts said the timetable, set out by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and James Mattis, the US Defence Secretary, to launch the Swedish talks by the end of November were “on track”.

Expectations of further confidence building measures to sustain the recent progress will now shift to the report that Mr Griffiths makes to diplomats in New York late in the week.

Mr Hunt said the medical evacuations were potentially very significant for the success of the upcoming meeting in Sweden. “If this unblocks that, then that makes the prospect of those peace talks happening more real, and that will be very important,” he said.

“So, it’s about confidence building on both sides but certainly from the people I’ve spoken to today, there is a real willingness to engage in this.”

Mr Hunt’s comments came as the Saudi-led coalition resumed airstrikes against the strategically vital port city of Hodeidah after a lull during the talks on Monday. The port acts as the entry point for 70 to 80 per cent of the food and medicine for a country suffering the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis.

Mr Hunt said that diplomacy and negotiation remained the only path to end fighting with three-quarters of the population needing humanitarian help and 8.4 million at risk of starvation. He said 14,000 people were getting cholera every week.

During the shuttle diplomacy between regional capitals, He also spoke with the foreign minister of Oman and senior leadership of Yemen.

“Overall, I leave the region encouraged by these signs of progress and I am determined to do what it takes to convert this into a lasting peace for the people of Yemen,” said Mr Hunt after Tuesday’s meeting with Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, and US National Security Adviser John Bolton.

The Yemeni conflict began in 2014 when Houthi rebels invaded the capital Sanaa, toppling the internationally-recognised government of President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi. An Arab coalition intervened in March 2015 at Mr Hadi's request.

On Monday, Yemen's former prime minister said a peace deal is still possible, but stressed the rebels are running out of opportunities for a resolution.

“If they delay the peace process [again], then they will lose everything and the international community will deal with them as a terrorist organisation just like ISIS,” Mr Bahah told The National on the sidelines of the Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate conference.