Yemen's Houthis arrive in Sweden for UN peace talks
World Food Program says a child in Yemen dies every 11 minutes from severe hunger
A Houthi delegation arrived in Sweden Tuesday for UN-sponsored Yemen peace talks, the first since 2016, as Western nations press for an end to the war and the United Nations warned of a looming economic disaster.
The nearly four-year-old conflict, which has killed thousands and left millions facing starvation, pits the Iranian-aligned Houthi group against Yemeni forces backed by an Arab coalition loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The Houthi team was escorted from the capital Sanaa, which was seized by the group in 2014, to Sweden by UN special envoy Martin Griffiths. Before boarding a Kuwaiti plane, one delegate praised him for delivering on confidence-building measures like the evacuation of wounded fighters and a prisoner swap deal.
"Griffiths was true to his word ... We are certain he has put in place a general framework for negotiations in order to proceed with the political process," Abdelmeguid Hanash told reporters.
Hadi's government is expected to follow the group, whose attendance was secured after the evacuation of 50 wounded Houthis for treatment in Oman on Monday. Previous talks in September collapsed when the Houthis failed to show up.
The talks will be held in a renovated castle outside Stockholm to discuss further confidence-building steps and a transitional governing body, as the U.S. Senate is set to consider a resolution to end support for the coalition in the war.
Outrage over the Oct. 2 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has intensified international scrutiny of Saudi activities in the region, potentially giving Western powers, which provide arms and intelligence to the coalition, more 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 refuelling support for coalition warplanes, whose air strikes have been blamed for many civilian deaths.
In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has told CBC News an arms deal signed with Saudi Arabia by the Conservative government that preceded him in Ottawa "makes it very difficult to suspend or leave that contract," without offering a lot of specifics.
A Foreign Affairs spokesperson subsequently told CBC's Sunday Edition in a statement: "With respect to Canada's arms exports, we expect that they are not used to violate human rights and are not diverted for use in the conflict in Yemen."
No new arms export permits have been issued, the spokesperson said.
The Western-backed Arab alliance intervened in the war in 2015 to restore Hadi's government, which Houthi forces ousted from Sanaa in 2014, but has bogged down in military stalemate.
Residents in the port of Hodeidah, now a focus of the war, were fearful of renewed fighting if the talks failed as each side fortified their positions in the Houthi-held Red Sea city after a period of reduced hostilities.
"The situation here does not make us optimistic that we will avoid war," said 51-year-old government employee Mohammed Taher.
Billions needed for humanitarian aid
The conflict, seen as a proxy war between the Saudis and Iran, has left more than eight million Yemenis facing famine although the United Nations has warned this could rise to 14 million. Three-quarters of the population, or 22 million, rely on aid.
World Food Program chief David Beasley said in Geneva that an upcoming food security report would show an increase in severe hunger rates in Yemen — where a child dies every 11 minutes — but not necessarily meet the criteria of famine.
UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said 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 US in aid.
United Arab Emirates Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said 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.
This would serve as a foundation for a wider ceasefire 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 of the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement.
The last available UN figure for the civilian death toll was in 2016 and stood at more than 10,000. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, which tracks violence in Yemen, puts it at around 57,000 people.
In Geneva, Lowcock said the Yemeni government would need billions of dollars of support to finance core state functions after oil revenues fell about 85 per cent, leaving annual income at $2 billion US.
"The country with the biggest problem in 2019 is going to be Yemen," he said.
With files from CBC News