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Yemen's Houthis set to head to Sweden peace talks as UN warns on economy

  • Published at 06:54 pm December 4th, 2018
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UN envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths speaks to the media during a visit to the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Yemen November 23, 2018 Reuters

The nearly four-year-old conflict, which has killed thousands and spawned the world's most urgent humanitarian crisis

A Yemeni Houthi delegation is expected to leave for Sweden on Tuesday for UN-sponsored peace talks, the first since 2016, as Western nations press for an end to the war that has pushed the impoverished country to the verge of starvation.

The nearly four-year-old conflict, which has killed thousands and spawned the world's most urgent humanitarian crisis, pits the Iranian-aligned Houthis against other Yemeni forces backed by a coalition loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

A Houthi official said their team would travel on a Kuwaiti plane accompanied by UN special envoy Martin Griffiths, who arrived in the Houthi-held capital Sanaa on Monday.

Hadi's government is expected to follow the group, whose attendance was secured after the coalition allowed the evacuation of 50 wounded Houthis for treatment in Oman on Monday. Previous talks in Geneva in September had collapsed after three days when the Houthis failed to show up.

The warring parties are expected to convene in Sweden as early as Wednesday to discuss confidence-building measures and a transitional governing body, as the US Senate is set to consider a resolution to end support for the war.

Outrage over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has increased scrutiny of Riyadh's activities in the region, potentially giving Western powers, which provide arms and intelligence to the coalition greater leverage to demand action.

Germany, Denmark and Sweden have suspended arms exports to Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi's killing and the Yemen war. The United States halted refueling support for coalition warplanes.

The Western-backed alliance intervened in the war in 2015 to restore Hadi's government, which was ousted from Sanaa in 2014, but has bogged down in military stalemate.

Critical juncture

The conflict, seen as a proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran, has left more than 8 million Yemenis facing famine although the United Nations has warned that could rise to 14 million. Three-quarters of the population, or 22 million, rely on aid.

UN aid chief Mark Lowcock said on Tuesday Yemen's government will need billions of dollars in external support to finance its 2019 budget and avoid another currency collapse in addition to $4 billion in aid.

UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said on Tuesday that the Sweden talks are a "critical opportunity."

"A sustainable Yemeni led political solution offers the best chance to ending the current crisis. A stable state, important for the region, cannot coexist with unlawful militias," he said.

Sweden's foreign ministry has yet to announce the venue of the talks, which will focus on reopening Sanaa airport and securing a prisoner swap and a ceasefire in Hodeidah port city, a lifeline for millions that is now a focus of the war.

This would serve as a foundation for a wider truce that would halt coalition air strikes that have killed thousands of civilians and Houthi missile attacks on Saudi cities.

"Yemenis need immediate relief as a stepping stone to longer term hope. The focus of the talks on the future management of the Hodeidah port and city and de-escalation of the fighting are important and welcome," David Miliband, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement.

The last available figure for the death toll from the United Nations was in 2016 and stood at more than 10,000. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a database that tracks violence in Yemen, says around 57,000 people have been reported killed since the beginning of 2016.

In Geneva, the United Nations' Lowcock told a news conference the government would need billions of dollars of support to finance the core functions of the state all over the country. Oil revenues, the main source of government income, had declined about 85%, leaving income at $2 billion.

"The country with the biggest problem in 2019 is going to be Yemen," he said.