Iran backs Yemen peace talks, state TV says

REUTERS  Khaled Abdullah

Residents in the port of Hodeidah, now a focus of the war, were fearful of renewed fighting if the talks failed as each side fortified their positions in the Houthi-held Red Sea city after a period of reduced hostilities.

The talks mark the first meeting between Yemen's Saudi-backed government and Huthi rebels, linked to Iran, since 2016, when 106 days of negotiations yielded no breakthrough in a war that has pushed 14 million people to the brink of starvation.

A day later, a 12-member team from the Saudi-backed government, headed by Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani, arrived in Sweden.

Under heavy worldwide pressure, Saudi-backed pro-government forces have largely suspended an offensive launched in June to take the port city.

A rebel delegation flew out of the Yemeni capital Tuesday accompanied by a United Nations peace envoy, heading for high-stakes talks in Sweden with the government aimed at ending the country's devastating war.

Sweden's foreign ministry has yet to announce the venue of the talks, which will focus on reopening Sanaa airport and securing a prisoner swap and a truce in Hodeidah, the entry point for most of Yemen's commercial goods and vital aid.

He said the move had been requested by the United Nations special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, and had been agreed as a confidence-building measure ahead of discussions in Sweden.

The delegation of the Saudi-backed government was carrying the "hopes of the Yemeni people to achieve sustainable peace", tweeted Abdullah al-Alimi, the head of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi's office.

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At the same time, he called on Houthi insurgents to remain "vigilant against any attempt at a military escalation on the ground".

"This is one step in the right direction towards the building of mutual trust among Yemeni communities", ICRC spokeswoman Mirella Hodeib said.

Outrage over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has increased scrutiny of Riyadh's activities in the region, potentially giving Western powers, which provide arms and intelligence to the coalition greater leverage to demand action.

Hadi's government is expected to follow the group, whose attendance was secured after the evacuation of 50 wounded Houthis for treatment in Oman on Monday.

Pressure to bring the war in Yemen to an end has risen in recent months amid a worsening humanitarian crisis that has resulted in the deaths of some 85,000 children due to malnutrition, according to Save the Children.

Twenty-nine million civilians are in need of humanitarian aid while 14 million are at risk of starvation as a result of the war and subsequent sieges which the Saudi-led coalition has imposed on a number of cities in an effort to starve and fore Houthi fighters out of them.

"The country with the biggest problem in 2019 is going to be Yemen", he said.

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