STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Yemen’s warring parties convene in Sweden on Thursday for U.N.-led peace talks for the first time since 2016 in a small victory for special envoy Martin Griffiths as he attempts to relaunch negotiations to end nearly four years of war.
Various U.N. mediators had sponsored a series of failed peace rounds since a Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015 to restore the internationally recognised government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which was ousted from the capital Sanaa by the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement in 2014.
Deep mistrust among all sides has made it difficult to launch a political process to resolve a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people and left millions living under the threat of starvation and disease.
Griffiths’ wrote in a column published by the New York Times that the talks offered a “glimmer of hope” and said the meeting would announce a formal agreement on a prisoner swap.
“At no other time has there been such a palpable international urge for the warring parties in Yemen to find a solution,” he said.
“Yet, it is only those around the table in a serene, remote part of Sweden who can deliver on these hopes. For the sake of Yemen’s children, we hope they will deliver.”
Analysts say that getting the parties to Sweden was an accomplishment in itself as the previous attempt at talks in Geneva in September was abandoned when the Houthis, who control most population centres in Yemen, failed to attend.
A U.N. source said the two sides were unlikely to hold direct talks at a renovated castle outside Stockholm. Griffiths’ team would shuttle between them to discuss confidence-building steps and the formation of a transitional governing body.
Peace prospects have risen as Western allies that supply arms and intelligence to the coalition press Saudi Arabia to end the conflict, seen as a proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran.
Outrage over the Oct. 2 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate has refocused attention on the Yemen war and scrutiny over Riyadh’s regional activities.
HODEIDAH IN FOCUS
Delegates from Hadi’s government and the Houthi group have praised Griffiths, who took over as mediator in February, for securing some confidence-building steps ahead of the talks, including evacuating wounded Houthi fighters for treatment.
The envoy is also seeking a deal on reopening Sanaa airport and securing a truce in the Houthi-held port of Hodeidah, now a focus of the war. This could lead to a wider ceasefire to halt coalition air strikes blamed for the death of thousands of civilians and Houthi missile attacks on Saudi cities.
The head of the Houthis‘ Supreme Revolutionary Committee, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, who is not part of the group’s Sweden team, warned in a Twitter post that if no deal is reached to re-open Sanaa airport the movement could close it to all traffic, including movement of U.N. officials.
The United Nations is trying to avert a full-scale assault on Hodeidah, the entry point for most of Yemen’s commercial goods and aid. Both sides have reinforced positions in the Red Sea city in sporadic battles after a de-escalation last month.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE, leaders of the Sunni Muslim alliance, want to exit a costly war that has become stuck in a military stalemate since the coalition seized the southern port of Aden in 2015, its sole major gain despite superior air power.
The Gulf states, wary of Iranian influence, entered the war in support of Hadi, who was elected in 2012 for a two-year term to oversee a democratic transition after mass protests in 2011 toppled late former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The Houthis deny they are Iranian pawns and say their movement is a national revolution against corruption.