The United Nations has called for the immediate removal of Saudi Arabia’s blockade on Yemen as talks to end the ongoing war against the impoverished country begin in Sweden.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on the Houthi Ansarullah movement and Yemen’s former Saudi-backed government to show flexibility and make room for progress.
“I welcome the opening of peace talks on the conflict in Yemen in Stockholm. I urge all those present at the talks to do everything in their power to end the war and the suffering,” he wrote in a tweet Thursday. “Yemenis can’t wait.”
A spokesman for Guterres said later on the secretary general was specifically appealing to both sides to continue the de-escalation in the port city of Hudaydah, which acts a lifeline for the entire country.
The US Senate warned in a rare statement earlier this week that Yemen imports as much as 90 percent of its food and relies on imported fuel.
Saudis and their regional allies – including the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—launched their military aggression against Yemen in March 2015 with the declared goal of removing Houthis from power and reinstating fugitive former President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, a staunch ally, to power.
As the prospects of defeating Houthis dimmed down the road and talks of a diplomatic solution gained traction, Saudi-backed groups launched an operation to seize control of Hudaydah in order to have the upper hand in the talks.
The ongoing offensive, however, has so far failed in the face of strong Houthi resistance.
Advising both sides against setting pre-conditions, Guterres said “intra-Yemeni dialogue” was necessary to resolve “the ongoing humanitarian crisis” caused by the war.
The war has so far killed thousands of civilians and destroyed the impoverished country’s infrastructure, exposing millions of people to starvation, lack of medicines and cholera outbreaks.
The UN chief said he doubted the talks would yield any results before year-end.
Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy to Yemen, told reporters on Thursday that the two sides were willing to work towards de-escalation.
The UN food agency has warned that the number of Yemenis in food crisis or emergency could reach 20 million.
Announcing a prisoner swap as a first step, Griffiths predicted other early steps to include ending the aerial blockade on the Yemeni capital Sana’a, halting the attacks on Hudaydah and implementing economic measures that could alleviate concerns about an impending famine.
The UN aid chief, Mark Lowcock, paid his first visit in more than a year to Yemen on Thursday. The UN has warned that over 14 million people are at risk of starvation in Yemen. That figure could go up to 20- million in the near future.
Houthis to decide by Friday
Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdelsalam told the Arabic-language Al-Mayadeen television channel on Thursday night that his side would decide by Friday whether there was any hope for progress.
“We will judge whether the Stockholm talks are serious or not tomorrow,” he said.