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U.N envoy says Yemen foes agree to peace talks in Sweden

U.N envoy says Yemen foes agree to peace talks in Sweden
Houthi Shiite rebels inspect the rubble after Saudi-led airstrikes on the Republican Palace in Sana, Yemen, in December. (Hani Mohammed / Associated Press)

The U.N. envoy for Yemen has announced that the country's internationally recognized government and rival Houthi Shiite rebels have agreed to attend talks aimed at ending their three-year war, which has created the globe's worst humanitarian crisis by pushing the Arab world's poorest country to the brink of famine.

Martin Griffiths told the U.N. Security Council on Friday that he planned to bring the warring parties together "soon" in Sweden. He also said the Houthis and the government, which is backed by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition, were about to conclude an agreement on exchanging prisoners and detainees.

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The spotlight has fallen on what many viewed as the long forgotten war in Yemen since the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on Oct. 2. Griffiths said he is determined to take advantage of "the international attention and energy" to move toward peace.

"We must seize this positive international momentum on Yemen," he told the U.N.'s most powerful body. "This is an opportunity at a crucial moment to pursue a comprehensive and inclusive political settlement to the conflict."

Griffiths said preparatory issues for the meeting are close to being resolved and that he has sent the parties his "vision" for "U.N.-led, inclusive Yemeni negotiations to end the war and restart a political transition process."

The conflict in Yemen began with the 2014 takeover of the capital of Sana by the Iranian-backed Houthis, which toppled the government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The Saudi-led coalition allied with the government has been fighting the Houthis since 2015.

Saudi-led airstrikes have hit schools, hospitals and wedding parties and killed thousands of Yemeni civilians. The Houthis have fired long-range missiles into Saudi Arabia and targeted vessels in the Red Sea.

Civilians have borne the brunt of the conflict, which has killed over 10,000 people and created what the executive director of the U.N.'s World Food Program said Friday is "a catastrophe."

David Beasley, who just returned from a three-day visit to Yemen, told the Security Council that "we do not need to wait for formal declarations about famine or even a full report to act."

"I believe that because of what I saw and heard this week children are already dying," he said.

Beasley warned that "starvation is on the horizon unless circumstances change — and change immediately."

Right now, he said, his agency is helping about 8 million people a month in Yemen but the situation has become "extremely dire."

"Of the 28 million Yemenis, we believe that as many as 12 million or more Yemenis — yes, that's right, almost half of the entire country — are just one step away from famine," Beasley said.

That number has doubled in the last year and a half and the situation is getting even worse, largely because of the collapse of Yemen's economy and the sharp decline in its currency, he said.

To avert famine, Beasley said, the international community must combine increased humanitarian funding with "an all-out effort to restore the Yemeni economy."

He said that will require scaling up assistance to help 12 million Yemenis, which would require about $150 million to $160 million a month. And it would require a cash injection of $200 million a month into Yemen's economy to stabilize its currency and stave off economic collapse, he said.

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"Yemen is on the brink — so together we must act," Beasley said. Otherwise, he warned, "we will be in the position of deciding which children live and which children die."

U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock, who warned the council on Oct. 23 that the economic crisis and escalating conflict had pushed Yemen closer to famine than ever before, also urged its members to take action now.

In addition to also urging the parties to negotiate an end to the conflict and the international community to boost aid, he called for a humanitarian cease-fire around key aid facilities, delivery of humanitarian and commercial imports to all Yemeni ports and onward to their final destinations, and funding to pay Yemeni pensioners and civil servants.

Britain's U.N. ambassador, Karen Pierce, said she will circulate a Security Council resolution Monday to address the Yemen crisis and put Lowcock's requests "into practice."

U.S. deputy ambassador Jonathan Cohen told the council: "This war must end soon, and it won't end on the battlefield." He reiterated Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo's words: "The United States seeks a cessation of hostilities in Yemen."

Lowcock noted that after an upsurge in fighting immediately after his Oct. 23 briefing to the council, there has been "a welcome deescalation" in the last two days.

"But what we need to know is that this lull is going to be sustained," Lowcock said. "It remains urgent for the parties to agree a cessation of hostilities."

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