Yemen rivals set for Swiss talks on deadly conflict

13th December 2015, Comments 0 comments

Yemeni government and rebel representatives meet in Switzerland Tuesday for UN-brokered peace talks, likely to be accompanied by a ceasefire, aimed at ending a deadly conflict exploited by jihadists.

More than a year after Iran-backed Shiite Huthi rebels swept into Yemen's capital Sanaa in the first sparks of civil war, none of the fighting factions has emerged victorious.

And Arab states which intervened militarily in March to back President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi's government have found themselves drawn further into a quagmire in the deeply tribal country, home to what the United States considers to be Al-Qaeda's deadliest branch, experts say.

Hopes are high that a renewable seven-day ceasefire could begin on the eve of the new round of talks which will be open-ended and held at an undisclosed location.

A truce is much needed in the Arabian Peninsula's poorest nation where an estimated 80 percent of the population of 26 million needs aid.

The United Nations says more than 5,800 people have been killed in Yemen, about half of them civilians, and more than 27,000 wounded since March.

Previous UN efforts have failed to narrow differences between the factions, and past ceasefires have failed to hold.

But this time "there is a real chance for a breakthrough", said Emirati analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, who believes "there will be concessions from both sides".

"Gulf Arab states have reached a point where they are convinced it is about time a peaceful solution should be given a better chance" to succeed, he told AFP.

- Expensive intervention -

The option of a political solution was highlighted Thursday in Riyadh during the annual summit of the energy-rich Gulf Cooperation Council states, whose military involvement in Yemen is starting to weigh on their budgets, already hit by the fall in oil prices.

Yemen's conflict has pitted local forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition fighting in support of Hadi's government against the Huthis who have allied with renegade troops still loyal to wealthy ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The Huthis and Saleh hail from the Zaidi Shiite community, which makes up 30 percent of Yemen's mostly Sunni population but is the majority in the northern highlands, including Sanaa province.

Oman, the only GCC country not in the coalition, has managed to "convince" rival regional heavyweights Iran and Saudi Arabia to "stop" their proxy war in Yemen, according to London-based analyst Abdelwahab Badrkhan.

The sultanate enjoys good relations with both Riyadh and Tehran.

The warring sides have agreed to sit at the same table despite mutual mistrust, mainly over UN Security Council Resolution 2216 which calls for rebels to withdraw from key cities and surrender their weapons.

The resolution is a mainstay of the position of the government and its Gulf backers.

"It is difficult to see the Huthis implement this resolution as this would signal an acknowledgement of their defeat," said Badrkhan.

According to UN envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, talks will focus on four main areas, including the terms of a permanent ceasefire and the withdrawal of armed groups from areas they control.

- Fighting stalemate -

In 2014, the Huthis advanced from their northern strongholds near the northern border before occupying government buildings in Sanaa in September that year and forcing Hadi into exile in Saudi Arabia months later.

In mid-November this year, Hadi returned to second city Aden which he declared the provisional capital.

Under cover of coalition warplanes and backed by Arab soldiers and heavy weaponry, the Popular Resistance forces -- an alliance of southern separatists, local tribesmen and loyalist troops -- have recaptured four southern provinces and Aden since July.

But they have failed to advance any further as rebel attacks on the south continue and Sunni extremist groups gain ground.

Attempts by pro-Hadi forces to retake the strategic province of Taez have also failed as fighting rages with little or no change on the ground.

The government's proposal for a truce followed last week's killing of the governor of Aden in a blast claimed by the Islamic State jihadist group.

In October, IS claimed a series of deadly attacks on government and coalition forces in Aden.

"Alarmed by the growing jihadist threat in territories under its control following the attacks in Aden, the government has no choice but to soften its position and act positively," said Badrkhan.

Abdulla agrees that IS and Al-Qaeda, already well established in Yemen's south, are "a common enemy that puts pressure on both sides of the Yemeni conflict, as well as Gulf countries".

"Nobody wants to see Daesh (Arabic acronym for IS) settle in Yemen and create a base as dangerous as that it has established in Syria," he said.

© 2015 AFP

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