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UN’s Yemen envoy pushes for new peace talks as fighting continues

MUSCAT: The UN’s Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths has met the country’s Houthi rebels in a push for new peace talks, as fighting continued Friday around the strategic port city of Hodeida.

Griffiths travelled to the Omani capital Muscat to meet the rebels after they refused to attend negotiations in Geneva last week.

Mohammed Abdulsalam, head of the Houthi delegation, and fellow rebel official Abdelmalak al-Ajri discussed the reasons for their absence from Geneva with the United Nations envoy, the rebel-run Saba news agency said.

The first negotiations between Yemen’s warring sides in two years were scheduled to start last Thursday, but a Yemeni government delegation left after the Houthis decided not to attend.

The rebels had accused the UN of failing to guarantee the return of their delegation from Switzerland to the Yemeni capital Sanaa and to secure the evacuation of wounded rebels to Oman.

This Thursday’s discussions also covered the “necessary measures” needed for fresh talks set for “as soon as possible”, Saba reported.

Hamid Assem, a member of the Houthi delegation, said on Friday there had been no breakthrough. “There has not been progress regarding the discussions while we have not received the guarantees,” he said by phone.

Griffiths is also scheduled to visit the Yemeni capital Sanaa, held by the Houthis, and Saudi Arabia, which leads a coalition against the rebels.

Dozens killed in fighting

The last talks between the Houthis and the Yemeni government, led by President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, took place in Kuwait in 2016.

Those negotiations faltered over power-sharing and the rebel withdrawal from key cities including Sanaa. They collapsed after 108 days and the rebel delegation was subsequently stranded in Oman for three months due to a coalition air blockade.

After the failure of the Geneva talks, deadly clashes resumed around the Houthi-held port city of Hodeida, a vital entry point for aid to a country teetering on the edge of famine.

Sixteen rebels died in a coalition air strike in the far south of the city on Thursday evening, according to military and medical sources in the province. Three pro-government fighters were killed the same evening when a military vehicle was hit by a shell to the east of Hodeida city.

Over 60 people have died in fighting around Hodeida since Wednesday, when Yemeni government forces said they seized two major supply routes into the port city.

The Houthis launched a counter-offensive on Thursday to retake the roads, which link Hodeida to Sanaa, military sources said.

“Sporadic fighting took place in Friday in various areas around the city,” said a government military source.

Separately, in Yemen’s Mahra province of Mahra, two coalition soldiers died Friday morning when their helicopter crashed due to a technical fault.

The pilot and co-pilot were killed during an operation targeting “terrorists”, the coalition said.

Imams appeal to worshippers

Facing intense pressure in Hodeida, the rebels have used their Al-Masirah television channel to implore their supporters to fight for the city.

At Sanaa’s Dhi al-Nourain Mosque, popular with Houthi supporters, an imam leading Friday prayers made an appeal: “Hodeida cries out to everyone, Hodeida belongs to all Yemenis, it must be defended.”

Religious leaders called on worshippers to help civilians who had fled the fighting.

The UN said on Friday the situation around Hodeida was “alarming” and threatened aid deliveries.

The World Food Programme (WFP) said it was “extremely concerned about the series of security incidents in Hodeida city”, saying they affected “sites critical for the humanitarian response in Yemen.”

In August, WFP said it had provided emergency food assistance to some 700,000 of the around 900,000 people in the province considered to be at severe risk.

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