Yemen talks ‘yielding results,’ shipping permits issued for essential goods

UN envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths shakes hands with Yemeni delegates peace talks at Johannesburg castle, in Rimbo, Sweden Thursday. (Reuters)
Updated 09 December 2018

Yemen talks ‘yielding results,’ shipping permits issued for essential goods

  • the two sides were demonstrating a “positive spirit” in the talks said Griffiths
  • Yemen’s four-year conflict, which has pushed the country to the brink of famine

RIMBO, SWEDEN: Houthi delegates at talks underway in Sweden to try end their country’s ruinous civil war reported progress on Saturday on the key issues of reopening the airport at the capital, Sanaa, and the implementation of an agreement reached earlier this week on the exchange of prisoners.

UN special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, struck a positive note, saying in a brief statement read to reporters that the two sides were demonstrating a “positive spirit” in the talks, held at a castle in the town of Rimbo, north of Stockholm.

Yemen’s four-year conflict, which has pushed the country to the brink of famine, pits the country’s Iran-backed militants, known as Houthis, against Yemen’s internationally recognized government supported by an Arab coalition. The UN has long led a push to resolve the conflict but past attempts at constructive talks have led nowhere.

“The two parties are engaged in a serious and constructive way in discussing the details of confidence-building measures,” Griffiths said. “We hope we will achieve progress during this round of consultations.”

On Sunday, the coalition fighting in Yemen said it had issued 17 permits for vessels carrying foodstuffs and petroleum products destined for Yemeni ports.

Also speaking on Saturday, the third day of the talks, Houthi delegate Abdul-Malik Al-Hajjri said enough progress has been made on the airport issue that some “positive results” could be announced as early as Sunday.

“There was a wide-ranging discussion yesterday and today on the re-opening of Sanaa airport and, God willing, there will be some positive results tomorrow on a comprehensive scenario for the reopening of Sanaa airport,” he told a news conference.

He gave no details except that one proposal made by the militants was for Sanaa-bound aircraft to stop at another city in the region for inspection before they proceed to the Yemeni capital. He suggested Amman, Jordan’s capital, as a candidate for an inspection stopover.

The Houthis captured Sanaa in 2014, forcing the government into exile and plunging the impoverished Arab nation into civil war. With the Houthis in control of most of the country, a US-backed Arab coalition entered the war in March 2015 on the side of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s government. 

The Houthis now control the north of the country while the government side controls the south.

The war has killed tens of thousands and made Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis with 22 of its 29 million people in need of aid, according to the UN. 

The airport in militant-held Sanaa has been closed since August 2016 by order of the Arab coalition, leaving the militant-held north of Yemen heavily relying on the Red Sea port of Hodeida, which is controlled by the Houthis, for delivery of much-needed humanitarian aid and fuel supplies.

The two sides have for months been locked at a stalemated fight over Hodeida.

On the issue of the prisoner exchange, Al-Hajjri said the militants were prepared to release all of those they hold, provided the other side reciprocates. The two sides, however, agreed on incremental releases, with 200 prisoners from each side being simultaneously released. He did not say when that would start.

UN officials have sought to downplay expectations from the talks in Sweden, saying they do not foresee rapid progress toward a political settlement but hope for at least minor steps that would help to address Yemen’s worsening humanitarian crisis and prepare a framework for further negotiations.

Abdul-Majid Al-Hanash, another Houthi delegate, emphasized the importance of arriving at such a framework.

“In reality, what we came here for is to discuss the most important topics and that means agreeing on a framework for the political and security files,” he told Saturday’s news conference. “If put on the table, discussing these files will mean that we expect the battle and the war to end. This is the main objective.”


Syrian Kurds say will help implement US-Turkey ‘safe zone’

Updated 25 August 2019

Syrian Kurds say will help implement US-Turkey ‘safe zone’

  • Buffer area sought to ‘limit any uncoordinated military operations,’ coalition says

HASAKAH/SYRIA, BEIRUT: Syria’s Kurds would support the implementation of a US-Turkey deal to set up a buffer zone in their areas along the Turkish border, they said on Saturday.

The “safe zone” agreed by Ankara and Washington earlier this month aims to create a buffer between the Turkish border and Syrian areas controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

The YPG have played a key role in the US-backed battle against Daesh in Syria, but Ankara views them as “terrorists.”

On Saturday, Mazloum Kobani, the head of the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said his alliance would back the deal.

“We will strive to ensure the success of (US) efforts toward implementing the understanding ... with the Turkish state,” he said.

“The SDF will be a positive party toward the success of this operation,” he told journalists in the northeastern town of Hasakah.

US Central Command said late on Friday that the SDF — which expelled Daesh from their last patch of territory in eastern Syria in March — had destroyed outposts in the border area.

“The SDF destroyed military fortifications” on Thursday, it said in a statement on Twitter.

“This demonstrates (the) SDF’s commitment to support implementation of the security mechanism framework.”

On Wednesday, the US and Turkish defense ministers “confirmed their intent to take immediate, coordinated steps to implement the framework,” said a statement by the US Department of Defense.

Also on Saturday, a representative of the US-led coalition fighting Daesh said the buffer area sought to “limit any uncoordinated military operations.”

“We believe that this dialogue is the only way to secure the border area in a sustainable manner,” Brig. Gen. Nicholas Pond said.

On Aug. 7, Turkish and US officials agreed to establish a joint operations center to oversee the creation of the “safe zone.”

Little is known about its size or how it will work, but Ankara has said there would be observation posts and joint patrols.

Damascus has rejected the agreement as serving “Turkey’s expansionist ambitions.”

Syrian Kurds have established an autonomous region in northeast Syria amid the country’s eight-year war. But as the fight against Daesh winds down, the prospect of a US military withdrawal had stoked Kurdish fears of a long-threatened Turkish attack.

Turkey has already carried out two offensives into Syria in 2016 and 2018, the second of which saw it and allied Syrian rebels overrun the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in the northwest.

Meanwhile, a car bomb exploded in the Syrian city of Idlib on Saturday, a war monitor said, as regime airstrikes hit its outskirts in a government offensive on the last major opposition bastion.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and opposition-run Orient News said a car blew up in the Al-Qusoor neighborhood. 

The Observatory said the blast killed two and wounded at least 11.

The city and the surrounding Idlib province in northwest Syria form part of the last big rebel stronghold in Syria.

A new push by Syrian government and Russian forces to take the area has seen heavy strikes and advances this week in the south of Idlib province and nearby Hama, prompting a new civilian exodus. Hundreds of people have been killed in the campaign since late April, the United Nations says.

On Friday Russia-backed Syrian troops reclaimed a cluster of towns they had lost early in the eight-year-old war, driving out the last rebel fighters from the Hama countryside.

Idlib city itself has largely been spared air strikes since a major bombing campaign on the territory began in late April, but on Saturday its outskirts were hit from the air, the Observatory and opposition media said.

Heavy strikes continued to hit the south of Idlib province, including around Maarat al-Numan, a city that has been a sanctuary for families fleeing former rebel areas around the country. This week tens of thousands fled to Syria’s border with Turkey as the fighting advanced.