A wounded Yemeni rebel is transported by ambulance to Sanaa International Airport, before being evacuated to the Omani capital Muscat for treatment, on December 3, 2018
Sanaa (AFP) - The UN Yemen envoy sought Tuesday to press forward planned peace talks in Sweden as a key backer of the beleaguered government said they offered a “critical opportunity” to end nearly four years of war.
Envoy Martin Griffiths was in the rebel-held capital Sanaa for meetings buoyed by the evacuation of 50 wounded Huthi rebel fighters for treatment in neutral Oman on Monday – a key rebel precondition for the talks.
A previous attempt by Griffiths to convene peace talks in Switzerland in September collapsed when rebels failed to show up, saying they had not received sufficient guarantees of safe passage through the crippling air and sea blockade that a Saudi-led coalition fighting alongside the government has enforced since March 2015.
The United Arab Emirates, which is a key player in the coalition, said the evacuation of the wounded fighters showed its commitment to the talks in Sweden and the opportunity they provided.
“We believe Sweden offers a critical opportunity to successfully engage in a political solution for Yemen,” the UAE’s state minister for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said.
“Evacuating wounded Huthi fighters from Sanaa once again demonstrates the Yemeni government & the Arab coalition’s support for peace,” he said in a tweet.
Yemeni mother Nadia Nahari holds her severely malnourished five-year-old son Abdelrahman Manhash, who weighs just five kilogrammes (11 pounds), at a treatment clinic in the government-held Khokha district of Hodeida province on November 22, 2018
International support for the new peace bid has been spurred by UN warnings that 15 million Yemenis are at risk of famine as the already dire humanitarian situation in the war-torn country deteriorates.
A coalition-backed government offensive on the rebel-held Red Sea port of Hodeida has threatened to cut virtually the only gateway for UN-supervised aid.
Additional momentum has come from the mounting Western pressure on Saudi Arabia since the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate on October 2.
CIA director Gina Haspel was to brief US lawmakers later on Tuesday following US media reports the intelligence agency had concluded Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had “probably ordered” the assassination of Khashoggi by a hit squad including some of his top aides.
Prince Mohammed is the kingdom’s de facto ruler and as defence minister was the mastermind of its Yemen intervention.
The coalition has largely suspended its offensive on Hodeida in the face of US-led calls for a ceasefire and new peace talks.
But fresh fighting flared on Monday and the coalition spokesman said military operations were “ongoing”.
UN Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths arrives in the rebel-held capital Sanaa on November 21, 2018 as he intensifies his efforts to convene new peace talks in Sweden
The UN envoy has said he has secured the rebels’ agreement to discuss handing over the city’s vital port to UN supervision to head off any disruption of the vital aid lifeline.
The coalition also agreed that the wounded rebel combatants could be flown out to Oman.
The UN envoy said on Monday that he was “pleased to confirm” the evacuation and “urged all Yemenis to work together in pursuit of peace”.
A UN source said the reopening of Sanaa airport, effectively closed since the coalition intervened in 2015, was a priority for the planned talks in Sweden.
No date has yet been set but hopes have been building that they could go ahead this week.
Kuwait’s Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled al-Jarallah told reporters that a rebel delegation was now set to leave Sanaa for Stockholm on Tuesday together with his country’s ambassador to Yemen.
The oil-rich Gulf emirate, which has been a mediator in the devastating conflict, hosted Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom for talks in Kuwait City on Monday.
Map showing war damage in Sanaa and Hodeida since December 2017
If and when the talks do convene, UN mediators will have to overcome a huge chasm between the rival sides to secure the concrete steps they seek at Hodeida docks and Sanaa airport.
The UAE minister said on Tuesday that the talks must not lose sight of the demands made of the rebels by Resolution 2216 passed by the UN Security Council in April 2015, a month after President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi fled into Saudi exile as they overran most of the country.
“A stable state, important for the region, cannot coexist with unlawful militias,” Gargash said.
“UN Security Council Resolution 2216 offers a workable road map.”
The resolution demands that the rebels recognise the legitimacy of Hadi’s government and withdraw from all towns and cities they had taken, including Sanaa.
It also demands that they return all heavy weaponry they had taken from government arsenals, including the missiles which they have since used to launch persistent attacks into neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
The demands are unacceptable to the rebels and subsequent international peace efforts, including three months of negotiations in Kuwait that broke down in 2016, have focused on a power-sharing government and a federal political system.