Public threats to return to war in Yemen hinder efforts to start peace talks, UN envoy says

Aug 16, 2023, 2:14 PM

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Threats to return to war in Yemen are hindering efforts to start peace talks as the Arab world’s poorest country faces an increasingly dire economic situation, a senior U.N. official said Wednesday.

Hans Grundberg, the U.N. special representative for Yemen, told the Security Council that hostilities between Houthi rebels and government forces haven’t returned to levels before a six-month truce that ended in October, but he said intermittent fighting and exchanges of fire have continued.

He singled out six front-line areas. They include Yemen’s third-largest city, Taiz, which has been under siege by the Houthis since 2016; Hodeida, where Yemen’s main port is located; and the oil-rich eastern province of Marib, which the Houthis attempted to seize in 2021.

Yemen’s civil war erupted in 2014 when the Iran-backed Houthis swept down from their northern stronghold and chased the internationally recognized government from the capital, Sanaa. A Saudi-led coalition intervened the following year on behalf of the government, and in time the conflict turned into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The war has devastated Yemen, killing more than 150,000 people and creating one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. The restoration of Saudi-Iran ties in April raised hopes of progress in ending the conflict, but so far there has been none.

Grundberg said his recent talks with both sides showed “general willingness to seek solutions, but this still needs to translate into concrete steps, in particular, a clear agreement on the way forward that includes restarting an inclusive Yemeni political process.”

And against the backdrop of intermittent fighting, he said, the threats to return to war are “not conducive to maintaining a fruitful mediation environment.”

Grundberg called on both sides “to refrain from escalatory rhetoric” and continue to use channels established under the truce to de-escalate incidents.

Last month, Grundberg told the council the fight over economic wealth “has become inseparable from the political and military conflict” and the rivals were now battling over revenue from ports, trade, banking and natural resources.

The U.N. envoy said Wednesday that the Houthis and government are continuing “to resort to antagonistic economic measures to weaken the other side” – tactics that primarily hurt civilians and sow distrust.

“The government is still being prevented from exporting petroleum products, its major source of revenue, and intra-Yemeni trade in goods and services remains curtailed due to restrictions and the imposition of exorbitant fees and taxes,” Grundberg said.

He also cited further deterioration in basic services with power stations shutting down due to a lack of fuel and electricity cuts in the southern city of Aden reaching 18 hours a day in stifling summer heat.

Edem Wosornu, operations director for the U.N. humanitarian office, told the council that protests in Aden and surrounding provinces have intensified in recent weeks in the wake of the extensive power outages and the decline in the value of Yemen’s currency, the rial.

In the absence of a resumption of oil exports, she warned that government revenue will continue to dwindle, leading to further cuts in services. And she said obstructions to trade will continue driving the cost of basic goods further out of reach for many Yemenis.

Both Grundberg and Wosornu welcomed Saudi Arabia’s recent announcement of $1.2 billion to support Yemen’s budget.

Wosornu said the money will help keep the power on and some salaries paid, but the Saudi funds alone won’t be enough “to bring Yemen’s economy back from the brink of collapse.”

While it’s vital to make progress on a political solution to the conflict, she said that alone won’t solve the humanitarian crisis.

“Only when such progress is pursued together with improved economic conditions and the re-establishment of essential services will we see humanitarian needs begin to decrease,” Wosornu said.

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