Efforts to end Yemen’s devastating war picked up pace Monday as the government and rebels edged closer to peace talks and Britain led a push at the UN Security Council for an immediate truce.
The moves came ahead of a visit in the next few days to the Arabian Peninsula country by UN envoy Martin Griffiths, once again trying to get all sides around the negotiating table.
“The government has informed the UN envoy to Yemen… that it will send a government delegation to the talks with the aim of reaching a political solution,” Yemen’s foreign ministry said, quoted by the official Saba news agency.
Earlier, Mohammed Ali al-Huthi, head of the Huthi rebels’ Higher Revolutionary Committee and an influential political figure, tweeted that he wanted his group to announce “readiness to suspend and halt all military operations” and stop firing missiles on Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia, which leads a coalition backing the Yemeni government, also lent its support to new talks.
A UN draft resolution on Yemen presented to the Security Council Monday calls for an immediate truce in the battleground port city of Hodeida, according to the draft seen by AFP.
However, fierce fighting broke out in the city late Monday between rebels and pro-government forces, according to military officials.
The fighting was the worst since forces loyal to the government halted an offensive last week, and was concentrated in the eastern part of the city where rebels fired artillery.
Pro-government forces responded while planes from the Saudi-led coalition launched 12 raids, the sources said.
The text of the draft UN resolution, circulated by Britain to the 14 other council members, sets a two-week deadline for the warring sides to remove all barriers to humanitarian aid.
The proposed resolution would significantly ratchet up pressure on the Saudi-led coalition and the Iran-linked Huthi rebels to seek a negotiated settlement in Yemen, where millions are on the brink of starvation.
It also calls for a large injection of foreign currency into the economy to support Yemen’s collapsing currency and for salaries of civil servants, teachers, and health workers to be paid within a month.
The Huthis have controlled Yemen’s capital Sanaa since capturing it in late 2014. They also hold Hodeida, home to a key port on the Red Sea.
The rebels have fired hundreds of ballistic missiles into neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which has since 2015 led a military coalition to restore to power President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi’s government.
Residents of Sanaa, interviewed by AFP, welcomed the Huthi call to halt military operations.
“This initiative is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength to prevent bloodshed and for life to go on,” Mohammed al-Jouri said.
Griffiths also hailed the rebel move, saying he “hopes that all parties continue to exercise restraint to create a conducive environment” for talks.
The envoy will visit Sanaa Wednesday, a source in his office said. He is expected to finalise arrangements for peace talks in Sweden, a date for which has not been set.
On Monday, Saudi King Salman told the Shura Council, his country’s top advisory body, that Riyadh also supported a “political solution” and a “comprehensive national dialogue” in Yemen.
Multiple past attempts to hold negotiations between the government alliance and Huthis have failed.
Griffiths said he hoped the rivals would meet in Sweden “within the next few weeks” to seek “an appropriate formula for the involvement of Ansarullah (the Huthis’ movement) and other political parties throughout Yemen in a government of unity”.
He told Sky News an agreement had been reached to ensure Huthi delegates could attend the talks without fear of being prevented from returning to Yemen, an obstacle that doomed peace talks slated to take place in Geneva in September.
‘Stop the bloodshed’
The Huthis’ foreign minister, Hisham Sharaf Abdallah, met UN officials late Sunday, and was quoted by the rebels’ news agency as saying the UN and the international community should “adopt the political path to stop the bloodshed”.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt arrived Monday in Iran to discuss Tehran’s role in Yemen, meeting with his counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif.
“We are very, very keen to move towards peace in Yemen. That’s our number one priority at the moment,” Hunt told British television after the talks.
Fighting in Yemen intensified at the start of November as the coalition renewed an offensive aimed at seizing Hodeida, whose port serves as entry point for nearly all of the country’s imports and humanitarian aid.
Pro-government forces announced a pause in their offensive last week as international pressure grew for a ceasefire.
But the coalition insisted Monday their operations were still ongoing, with spokesman Turki al-Maliki saying they were targeting rebel reinforcements even as he voiced support for the talks.
The rebel-run Al-Masirah TV said the coalition had carried out seven air strikes in the surrounding province and one inside Hodeida city.
The rebels also reported fresh clashes in a battle front near Sanaa on Monday, Al-Masirah said.
The World Health Organization says nearly 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen since the Saudi intervention in March 2015, but rights groups believe the toll may be five times higher.
The war in Yemen — already one of the world’s most impoverished countries — has left the nation on the edge of mass starvation.