The Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed Yemeni government have not met in UN-sponsored talks since 2016. The meeting is focusing on building confidence between the two parties.
UN-brokered peace talks between the warring parties in Yemen's conflict began on Thursday in Sweden. The meeting is the latest attempt to end a civil war that has ravaged the country and brought it to the brink of famine.
Representatives of Yemen's government, the UN special envoy Martin Griffiths and members of the Houthi rebel militia are participating in the talks, which are set in the town of Rimbo, north of Stockholm. They are slated to run for one week.
The Houthi rebels, who are backed by Iran, have been locked in a power struggle with the Saudi-backed Yemeni government since late 2014, when the rebels took hold of the capital Sanaa.
Direct talks took place previously in 2015 and 2016, but both attempts were unsuccessful. Griffiths had attempted to bring the two sides together for UN-sponsored talks in Geneva in September of this year, but the rebels failed to appear.
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Among the reasons were disagreements between Saudi Arabia and Iran over staging a ceasefire, Houthi refusals to surrender major cities and the rebel's capturing of a military base north of Sanaa.
War: The 'root cause' of Yemen's disasters
The UN has identified conflict as the "root cause" of Yemen's crises. More than 10,000 people have been killed since the conflict erupted in 2014 when Shiite Houthi rebels launched a campaign to capture the capital, Sanaa. In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition launched a deadly campaign against the rebels, one that has been widely criticized by human rights groups for its high civilian death toll.
Fighting keeps food from the famished
The conflict has prevented humanitarian aid from reaching large parts of the civilian population, resulting in 60 percent of the country's 28 million people being classified as "food insecure." At least 2.2 million children are acutely malnourished, according to the UN World Food Program. UN chief Antonio Guterres has urged the Security Council to pressure warring parties to allow aid in.
Displacement: Converging crises
More than 2 million people have been displaced by conflict, including marginalized communities such as the "Muhammasheen," a minority tribe that originally migrated from Africa. Despite the civil war, many flee conflict in Somalia and head to Yemen, marking the convergence of two major migration crises in the Middle East nation. Yemen hosts more than 255,000 Somali refugees, according to UNHCR.
Cholera: A deadly epidemic
As of October 2017, the number of suspected cholera cases exceeded more than 750,000, and at least 2,135 people had died from the waterborne bacterial infection in Yemen in ten months, said the WHO. Although cholera can be easily treated, it can kill within hours when untreated. By October 2018, over 10,000 cases of cholera were being treated weekly.
Unsuspecting victims of the'war on terror'
In Yemen, violence goes beyond civil conflict: It is considered a strategic front in the war on terrorism. The country serves as the operational base for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, dubbed the "most dangerous" terrorist group before the rise of the "Islamic State." The US routinely uses drones to target al-Qaida leadership. However, civilians have often been killed in the operations.
Children's fate: Future marred by tragedy
In a country paralyzed by conflict, children are one of the most at-risk groups in Yemen. More than 11 million children require humanitarian aid, according to the UN humanitarian coordination agency. The country's education system is "on the brink of collapse," while children are dying of "preventable causes like malnutrition, diarrhea and respiratory tract infections," the agency said in October.
Peace: An elusive future
Despite several attempts at UN-backed peace talks, the conflict continues to rage on. Saudi Arabia has vowed to continue supporting the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. On the other hand, Houthi rebels have demanded the formation of a unity government in order to move forward on a political solution. But neither side appears ready to compromise.
Sweden's foreign minister Margot Wallstrom opened the talks with a press conference, where she wished both sides the strength to find "compromise and courage" on the difficult task ahead.
Griffiths joined her at the presser and said that the talks represented "a milestone."
"During the coming days we will have a critical opportunity to give momentum to the peace process," the UN special envoy said.
UN officials have lowered expectations ahead of the talks, but they hope that minor steps can be achieved to address Yemen's worsening humanitarian crisis.
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This round of meetings has been focused on building confidence among the warring parties, with pre-talk measures that included a prisoner swap agreement and the evacuation of wounded rebels for medical treatment.
Yemen to seek Hodeida port
The agenda features topics such as the opening of Sanaa airport, lifting the Houthi-imposed siege on Yemen's southwestern city of Taiz and fine tuning the details of the prisoner swap deal.
Yemen's foreign minister Khaled al-Yamani, said ahead of the talks that his government would propose a four-point initiative "demanding the departure of the militia from the western coast and the handing over of the area to the government."
The Yemeni government also plans on requesting that the rebel Houthis relinquish their control over the port of city of Hodeida.
Yemen's war has left at least 10,000 people dead and generated the world's worst humanitarian crisis. International pressure has mounted for the two sides to end the conflict. The United States has called for a ceasefire and reduced some of its logistical aid for the Saudi coalition, while Iran has also signaled support for the talks.
jcg/ng (AP, dpa, Reuters)
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