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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Yemen’s warring parties still at odds over key agenda items as talks enter third day 

Negotiations have yet to address a political solution to the conflict, a delegate representing the Yemeni government said

Abdul Malik al-Hajry and Abdul Majid Hanash, representatives for the Houthi rebel delegation, speak at a press briefing in Rimbo. TT News Agency via AP
Abdul Malik al-Hajry and Abdul Majid Hanash, representatives for the Houthi rebel delegation, speak at a press briefing in Rimbo. TT News Agency via AP

As UN-backed Yemen peace talks in Sweden entered their third day on Saturday, representatives of the country’s warring parties have yet to bridge differences over key issues, including the reopening of the Sanaa airport and UN administration of a vital Yemeni port.

Rana Ghanem, a member of the government’s delegation told The National on Saturday that the government and Houthi delegation have not yet held face-to-face consultations. Instead, UN Envoy Martin Griffiths and his team have so far shuttled between Houthi rebels and representatives of the Yemeni government, in Rimbo, north of Stockholm.

Ms Ghanem also said that discussions have yet to address a political solution to the conflict. “This is natural, how can we engage in a political process when there are many issues on the ground that needs to be resolved,” she said.

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Cautious optimism reigns over Yemen peace talks

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The UN envoy has outlined three initial objectives for talks in Sweden: securing some confidence-building measures including a prisoner swap, the reopening of the airport in the capital, Sanaa, and securing UN administration of the strategic Red Sea port of Hodeidah, through which almost 80% of international aid enters the country.

The consultations are expected to last until December 13 with both sides under pressure to agree on confidence-building measures that will allow formal peace negotiations to resume.

Mr Griffiths on Saturday commended the positive spirit the two parties are demonstrating in consultations.

“The two parties are engaged in a serious and constructive way in discussing the details of confidence building measures, reduction of violence and the framework for negotiations,” Mr Griffiths said in a statement.

The UN Envoy stressed the importance of continued restraint on the ground and called on the two parties to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law, the statement said.

“We are working to the background of a very fragile situation in Yemen. We hope that de-escalation will be maintained on different front lines, to give a chance for progress to be achieved on the political consultations.”

Ms Ghanem said that negotiating parties have raised the issue of confidence building between rebels and the government, in an effort to boost mutual trust that has eroded over the course of the conflict.

Yemen’s warring sides agreed on Thursday on freeing thousands of prisoners as part of a wider attempt at enhancing trust. But, rebels and the government have yet to agree on details of the deal.

While the first day of talks concluded on a positive note, negotiations have since been marred by complications.

Houthi rebels on Friday rejected a request made by Yemen’s government to reopen Sanaa airport to domestic flights. The government proposed reopening the rebel-held airport on condition planes are inspected in the airports of Aden or Sayun which are under its control.

Delegates representing Houthi rebels told reporters in Sweden that they refuse plane inspections. But, Ms Ghanem said that the government’s delegation did not receive an official response from the Houthis.

She also criticized their reasons for rejecting the proposal, saying that “before the airport was shut in 2014, there were daily domestic flights between Sanaa and Besha and the flights were inspected in Besha.”

The main reason the government has proposed to reopen Sanaa airport, she said, “is to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people and to ensure the delivery of much needed humanitarian aid.”

The government is also pushing for the opening of Taez airport, according to Ms Ghanem.

“The city is widely populated and this will ensure the long-term delivery of aid. But it cannot just open without any inspection and surveillance,” she said, in comments that suggest that Houthis may also reject this proposal because of insistence on inspection.

The main negotiator for Houthi rebels Mohammed Abdusalam told Reuters on Saturday that his group was open to the possibility of a UN role at Sanaa airport to secure agreement to reopen the facility, which has been bombed several times. “The closing of Sanaa airport was a political decision not because of security concerns… if we agree on its reopening, we are ready to discuss those details,” he said.

Meanwhile, Yemen's foreign minister on Saturday said that the government-controlled city of Aden will be home to the country's main airport.

"We are ready to reopen Sanaa international airport today... but we have a vision that Aden will be the sovereign airport of Yemen," Khaled al-Yamani told AFP in his first interview since the talks opened in Sweden on Thursday.

On the issue of the vital port of Hodeidah, Ms Ghanem said that it must come under full government control.

The Yemeni government, backed by the Arab Coalition, accuses the Iran-backed rebels of using their control of the port, the main entry point for Yemen's food imports and desperately needed humanitarian aid, to smuggle in weapons from Iran.

Mr Abdusalam on Saturday said that Hodeidah should be declared a neutral zone.

"It (Hodeidah) should be a neutral zone apart from the conflict, and the military brigades that came from outside Hodeidah province should leave," he told Reuters in Rimbo on the sidelines of peace talks with the Saudi-backed government.

"We have proposed to the UN to oversee the port and supervise its logistics... inspections, revenues and all the technical issues," he said while declining to say who will control the city if both rebels and government forces leave.

Meanwhile, Yemen’s foreign minister told AFP that the government is willing to coordinate with the UN on supervision and port operations but stressed that “the port must remain sovereign, part of the work of the Yemeni transport ministry which is in charge of Yemeni borders and ports."

Ms Ghanem said she is sceptical about Houthi’s willingness to engage in peace talks, expressing her belief that “they are not serious about finding a political solution to this crisis.” But, she said she does hope to see Houthis pushing for peace, following the devastating war.

Mr Abdusalam told Reuters that a ceasefire would be the first condition for a political solution. "As long as canons are firing and warplanes are bombing, there will be no space for a voice of reason or negotiations,” he said.