NATO allies struggle to keep Kabul airport open for aid after withdrawal

By Stephanie Nebehay and Orhan Coskun

GENEVA/ANKARA (Reuters) – NATO allies are struggling to ensure that Afghanistan’s main gateway, Kabul airport, remains open for urgently needed humanitarian aid flights next week when they end their evacuation airlifts and turn it over to the Taliban.

The airport, a lifeline for tens of thousands of evacuees fleeing victorious Taliban fighters in the last two weeks and for aid arriving to relieve the impact of drought and conflict, was hit by a deadly attack outside its gates on Thursday.

Turkey said it was still talking to the Taliban about providing technical help to operate the airport after the Aug. 31 deadline for troops to leave Afghanistan but said the bombing underlined the need for a Turkish force to protect any experts deployed there.

Turkey has not said whether the Taliban would accept such a condition, and President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday his country was “not in a rush to start flights” again to Kabul.

But aid groups say there is an urgent need to maintain humanitarian deliveries to a country suffering its second drought in four years and where 18 million people, nearly half the population, depend on life-saving assistance.

The World Food Program said this week that millions of people in Afghanistan were “marching towards starvation” as the COVID-19 pandemic and this month’s upheaval, on top of the existing hardships, drive the country to catastrophe.

The World Health Organization warned on Friday that medical supplies in Afghanistan would run out in days, with little chance of re-stocking them.

“Right now because of security concerns and several other operational considerations, Kabul airport is not going to be an option for the next week at least,” said WHO regional emergency director Rick Brennan.

Brennan said the organization hoped to operate flights in the next few days into Afghanistan’s northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif with the support of Pakistani authorities.

“One of the challenges we have in Afghanistan right now is there is no civil aviation authority functioning,” he told a briefing from Cairo.

Insurance rates for flying into Afghanistan had “skyrocketed at prices we have never seen before” since Thursday’s attack, he added. “Once we have addressed that we will hopefully be airborne in the next 48 to 72 hours.”

LAST FLIGHTS

The United States says the Islamist Taliban movement had indicated “in no uncertain terms” that it wants to have a functioning commercial airport to avoid international isolation.

“A functioning state, a functioning economy, a government that has some semblance of a relationship with the rest of the world, needs a functioning commercial airport,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said. “We are in discussions with the Taliban on this very front.”

On Friday the Pentagon said several nations were willing to work with the Taliban to keep Kabul airport operating.

Still, as aid groups struggle to keep supply routes into the country open after the Aug. 31 departure of foreign troops, Afghans trying to leave the country are finding the few remaining exits slamming shut.

Several European Union countries say they have ended evacuation operations from Kabul, and the United States has said that by Monday it will prioritize the removal of its last troops and military equipment.

Germany ended evacuation flights on Thursday, although its former envoy to Afghanistan, Markus Potzel, has been in talks with the Taliban representative in Doha to keep Kabul airport operating after Aug. 31.

Potzel said on Wednesday he had been assured by the Taliban that Afghans “with legal documents will continue to have the opportunity to travel on commercial flights after 31 August.”

(Additional reporting by Emma Farge in Geneva and Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Edmund Blair)

Western nations race to complete Afghan evacuation as deadline looms

(Reuters) – Western nations rushed to evacuate people from Afghanistan on Wednesday as the Aug. 31 deadline for the withdrawal of foreign troops drew closer and fears grew that many could be left behind to an uncertain fate under the country’s new Taliban rulers.

In one of the biggest such airlifts ever, the United States and its allies have evacuated more than 70,000 people, including their citizens, NATO personnel and Afghans at risk, since Aug. 14, the day before the Taliban swept into the capital Kabul to bring to an end the 20-year foreign military presence.

U.S. President Joe Biden said U.S. troops in Afghanistan faced mounting danger, while aid agencies warned of an impending humanitarian crisis for those left behind.

Biden has spurned calls from allies to extend the deadline, set under an agreement struck by the previous administration of Donald Trump with the hardline Islamist group last year. But he said on Tuesday the deadline could be met.

“The sooner we can finish, the better,” Biden said. “Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops.”

Two U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was growing concern about the risk of suicide bombings by Islamic State at the airport.

British foreign minister Dominic Raab said the deadline for evacuating people was up to the last minute of the month.

France said it would push on with evacuations as long as possible but it was likely to end these operations in the coming hours or days.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany would try to help Afghans who worked with its soldiers and aid organizations and wished to leave Afghanistan after the deadline expires.

“The end of the air bridge in a few days must not mean the end of efforts to protect Afghan helpers and help those Afghans who have been left in a bigger emergency with the takeover of the Taliban,” she told the German parliament.

Tens of thousands of Afghans fearing persecution have thronged Kabul’s airport since the Taliban takeover, the lucky ones securing seats on flights.

On Wednesday, many people milled about outside the airport – where soldiers from the United States, Britain and other nations were trying to maintain order amid the dust and heat – hoping to get out.

They carried bags and suitcases stuffed with possessions, and waved documents at soldiers in the hope of gaining entry. One man, standing knee-deep in a flooded ditch, passed a child to a man above.

“I learned from an email from London that the Americans are taking people out, that’s why I’ve come so I can go abroad,” said one man, Aizaz Ullah.

While the focus is now on those trying to flee, the risk of starvation, disease and persecution is rising for the rest of the population, aid agencies say.

“There’s a perfect storm coming because of several years of drought, conflict, economic deterioration, compounded by COVID,” David Beasley, executive director of the U.N. World Food Program, told Reuters in Doha, saying that about 14 million people were threatened with starvation.

The U.N. human rights chief said she had received credible reports of serious violations by the Taliban, including “summary executions” of civilians and Afghan security forces who had surrendered. The Taliban have said they will investigate reports of atrocities.

The Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule was marked by harsh sharia law, with many political rights and basic freedoms curtailed and women severely oppressed. Afghanistan was also a hub for anti-Western militants, and Washington, London and others fear it might become so again.

LAND ROUTES

The Taliban said all foreign evacuations must be completed by Aug. 31. It has asked the United States to stop urging talented Afghans to leave while also trying to persuade people at the airport to go home, saying they had nothing to fear.

“Foreign troops should withdraw by the deadline. It will pave the way for resumption of civilian flights,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said on Twitter.

“People with legal documents can travel through commercial flights after Aug. 31.”

The Dutch government said it was all but certain that many people eligible for asylum would not be taken out in time.

Dutch troops had managed to get more than 100 people to Kabul airport, Foreign Minister Sigrid Kaag said, but hundreds of others risked being left behind.

The U.S.-backed government collapsed as the United States and its allies withdrew troops two decades after they ousted the Taliban in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States by al Qaeda, whose leaders had found safe haven in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

The Taliban were also switching focus from their military victory to how to run a country in crisis. They have appointed veteran figures to the posts of finance minister and defense minister since wresting control of all government offices, the presidential palace and parliament, two Taliban members said.

Afghanistan’s Pajhwok news agency said Gul Agha had been named as finance minister and Sadr Ibrahim acting interior minister. Former Guantanamo detainee Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir was named acting defense minister, Al Jazeera news channel reported, citing a Taliban source.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Lincoln Feast, Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Angus MacSwan, Giles Elgood and Nick Macfie)

With fuel scarce, Yemen’s forests are next casualty of war

By Khaled Abdullah

KHAMIS BANISAAD, Yemen (Reuters) – Yemeni lumberjack Ali al-Emadi spends hours chopping down an acacia tree with an axe as his 12-year-old nephew helps out splitting logs.

In a country blighted by war, Emadi had to turn to logging in his northern al-Mahweet region to eke out a living. An economic collapse has wiped out the farming and building work he used to travel around the country for.

But with demand for firewood soaring due to fuel shortages, there are now concerns that the country’s humanitarian crisis, with millions facing starvation, has compounded the risk of deforestation – threatening both the environment of Yemen and any hope of a long-term livelihood for men like Emadi.

“The owners of bakeries … use wood and stone to heat their ovens. In the past, they used to use gas, but now there is only wood,” Emadi said.

“Should there be good quantity of wood available, we make a living, thank God. But nowadays trees are scarce,” the father of seven said. “If I get something, we eat. At least we live or die together.”

More than six years of war between the recognized government backed by a Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi movement aligned with Iran has killed tens of thousands of people and left 80% of Yemen’s population reliant on aid.

The fuel shortages due to a coalition blockade on Houthi-held areas, including limiting access to the main port of Hodeidah, have led businesses and families to swap diesel and gas for firewood. The alliance says the blockade is needed to foil arms smuggling.

TREES UPROOTED

Around 886,000 trees are felled annually to feed bakeries and restaurants in the capital Sanaa alone, said Abdullah Abul-Futuh, head of biodiversity and natural reserves at Yemen’s Environment Protection Authority in the city, which is run by Houthi authorities along with most of northern Yemen.

Some 5 million trees have been cut down over the past three years across the north, he said.

“That is the equivalent of 213 square km (82 sq miles) of forests, knowing that only 3.3% of Yemen’s total area is classified as forests,” Abul-Futuh said.

The authority could not provide comparative figures, saying this was a recent phenomenon.

After gas was discovered in the Marib region in the 1980s, wood cutting became limited to remote areas but the war has choked Yemen’s energy output, forcing a reliance first on imports and now on wood from trees more usually used to build homes.

Yemen has few woodlands but a relatively rich variety of flora in the oil-producing Arabian Peninsula desert region. In al-Mahweet, known for its thick canopies, several types of acacia, cedar and spruce are vanishing.

Lumberjacks who have the means buy an acacia tree from land owners for the equivalent of around $100 and then sell logs to traders who send them to the cities.

A 5-tonne truck loaded with logs nets the equivalent of $300-$700 in Sanaa, depending on the wood and haulage distance.

“Demand depends on the number of fuel ships that make it to Hodeidah port. These days it (demand) is very high,” said logger Sulaiman Jubran, who scratches a living selling firewood to visiting traders.

“We are scared the country will become a desert, it is already happening … you no longer see the trees that once covered the mountains,” he said.

Forests are largely privately owned and poor families were traditionally allowed to chop wood for free as long as they only cut branches and spared the trunks for regeneration.

“Now, we uproot them with mattocks (pickaxe) .. nothing is left,” Emadi said.

(Additional reporting and writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous and Alison Williams)

WFP says communities on verge of starvation in Madagascar after drought

NAIROBI (Reuters) – Communities in Madagascar are on the verge of starvation, with women and children walking for hours to reach food after the worst drought in four decades devastated the south of the island, the World Food Program said.

Acute malnutrition has almost doubled over the last four months, the WFP said, with more than a quarter of people suffering in one area.

“I met women and children who were holding on for dear life, they’d walked for hours to get to our food distribution points,” David Beasley, WFP executive director, said in a statement.

“There have been back-to-back droughts in Madagascar which have pushed communities right to the very edge of starvation. Families are suffering and people are already dying from severe hunger,” he added. Beasley blamed climate change for the crisis.

WFP said $78.6 million was needed to fight the crisis.

“Families have been living on raw red cactus fruits, wild leaves and locusts for months now,” Beasley said.

Bole, a mother of three from Ambiriky, in southern Madagascar, who also is caring for two orphans after their mother died, told the agency that to survive they relied on cactus leaves for their meals.

“We have nothing left. Their mother is dead and my husband is dead. What do you want me to say? Our life is all about looking for cactus leaves again and again to survive,” she said.

(Writing by Omar Mohammed; Editing by Alison Williams)

270 million people face starvation, says WFP as it receives Nobel Peace Prize

By Reuters Staff

OSLO (Reuters) – Some 270 million people worldwide – equivalent to the combined populations of Germany, Britain, France and Italy – stand on the brink of starvation, the head of the United Nations’ World Food Program said on Thursday upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.

The WFP, which has coordinated medical logistics during the coronavirus pandemic, was announced winner of the award for 2020 in October.

“Because of so many wars, climate change, the widespread use of hunger as a political and military weapon, and a global health pandemic that makes all of that exponentially worse — 270 million people are marching toward starvation,” David Beasley said from the WFP headquarters in Rome, upon receiving the Nobel medal and diploma.

“Failure to address their needs will cause a hunger pandemic which will dwarf the impact of COVID. And if that’s not bad enough, out of that 270 million, 30 million depend on us 100% for their survival,” he added.

Instead of the usual ceremony at the Oslo City Hall before dignitaries including Norway’s King Harald, WFP officials stayed in Rome due to the coronavirus pandemic.

They are expected to travel to Oslo at a later stage to deliver the traditional Nobel lecture.

The remaining Nobel awards – for medicine, physics, chemistry, literature and economics – which are traditionally handed out in Stockholm – have also been moved online.

The ceremonies are held every year on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death of Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, who founded the awards in his 1895 will.

Starving girl shows impact of Yemen war, economic collapse

The sister of malnourished Fatima Ibrahim Hadi, 12, who weighs just 10 kg, carries her at a clinic in Aslam of the northwestern province of Hajjah, Yemen February 12, 2019. Picture taken February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alragehi

HAJJAH, Yemen (Reuters) – Displaced by war, starving and living under a tree, 12-year-old Fatima Qoba weighed just 10kg when she was carried into a Yemeni malnutrition clinic.

“All the fat reserves in her body have been used up, she is left only with bones,” Makiah al-Aslami, a doctor and head of the clinic in northwest Yemen. “She has the most extreme form of malnutrition.”

Qoba’s slide into starvation is typical of what is happening in much of Yemen, where war and economic collapse have driven around 10 million people to the brink of famine, according to the United Nations.

The sister of malnourished Fatima Ibrahim Hadi, 12, who weighs just 10 kg, carries her at a clinic in Aslam of the northwestern province of Hajjah, Yemen February 12, 2019. Picture taken February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alragehi

The sister of malnourished Fatima Ibrahim Hadi, 12, who weighs just 10 kg, carries her at a clinic in Aslam of the northwestern province of Hajjah, Yemen February 12, 2019. Picture taken February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alragehi

Aslami said she is expecting more and more malnutrition cases to come through her door. This month she is treating more than 40 pregnant women with severe malnutrition.

“So in the coming months I expect I will have 43 underweight children,” she said.

She said that since the end of 2018, 14 deaths from malnutrition had occurred at her clinic alone.

Qoba, her 10 siblings and father were forced from their home near the border with Saudi Arabia and forced to live under a tree, Qoba’s older sister, also called Fatima, told Reuters.

She said they were fleeing bombardment from the Saudi-led coalition, which intervened in Yemen in 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi after the Houthi-movement ousted it from power in the capital Sanaa in 2014.

“We don’t have money to get food. All we have is what our neighbors and relatives give us,” the sister said. Their father, in his 60s, is unemployed. “He sits under the tree and doesn’t move.”  

“If we stayed here and starved no one would know about us. We don’t have a future,” she said.

After trying two other hospitals which could not help, a relative found the money to transport Qoba to the clinic in Houthi-controlled Aslam, one of Yemen’s poorest districts with high malnutrition levels.

Lying on green hospital sheets, Qoba’s skin is papery, her eyes huge and her skeletal frame encased in a loose orange dress. A health worker feeds her a pale mush from a bowl.

Aslami said the girl needed a month of treatment to build up her body and mind.

The United Nations is trying to implement a ceasefire and troop withdrawal from Yemen’s main port of Hodeidah, where most of Yemen’s imports come from. But violence continues to displace people in other parts of the country, and cut access routes for food, fuel and aid.

There is food in Yemen, but severe inflation has eroded people’s ability to buy it, and the non-payment of government worker salaries has left many households without incomes.

“It’s a disaster on the edge of famine … Yemeni society and families are exhausted,” Aslami said. “The only solution is to stop the war.”

(This version of the story has been refiled to remove extraneous word “they” in paragraph six)

(Reporting by Reuters team in Yemen; Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Alison Williams)

Explainer: Is Yemen finally on the road to peace?

FILE PHOTO: Boys walk amid ruins of houses during the conflict in the northwestern city of Saada, Yemen November 22, 2018. Picture taken November 22, 2018. REUTERS/Naif Rahma/File Photo

By Aziz El Yaakoubi and Mohammed Ghobari

DUBAI/ADEN (Reuters) – Weeks of U.N. shuttle diplomacy and Western pressure delivered a breakthrough in Yemen peace efforts when the warring parties last week agreed to cease fighting in a contested Red Sea port city and withdraw forces.

The challenge lies in securing an orderly troop withdrawal from Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis facing starvation, amid deep mistrust among the parties.

At the same time, the United Nations must prepare for critical discussions on a wider truce and a framework for political negotiations to end the conflict.

The nearly four-year-old war, which has killed tens of thousands of people, pits the Iran-aligned Houthi group against other Yemeni factions fighting alongside the Saudi-led coalition trying to restore the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The Houthis, who ousted Hadi’s administration from the capital Sanaa in 2014, and their coalition foes are due to start implementing the Hodeidah ceasefire on Tuesday.

Coalition leaders Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are under pressure from Western allies including the United States and Britain, which supply arms and intelligence to the Sunni Muslim alliance, to end the war as Riyadh comes under scrutiny after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

People gather near stalls with used tools on a street in Hodeidah, Yemen December 15, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

People gather near stalls with used tools on a street in Hodeidah, Yemen December 15, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

WHY IS HODEIDAH SO IMPORTANT?

It is the main port used to feed Yemen’s 30 million people and has been the focus of fighting this year, raising global fears that a full-scale assault could cut off supply lines and lead to mass starvation. The war and the ensuing economic collapse has left 15.9 million people facing severe hunger.

The Houthis currently control the city. Coalition-backed Yemeni forces have massed on the outskirts in an offensive aimed at seizing the seaport. Their aim is to weaken the group by cutting off its main supply line.

The alliance bogged down in a military stalemate, also wants to secure the coast along the Red Sea, one of the most important trade routes in the world for oil tankers.

The coalition captured the southern port of Aden in 2015 and a string of ports on the western coast, but the Houthis control most towns and cities in Yemen, including Hodeidah and Sanaa.

Analysts say implementing the agreement is important, as any lapse in momentum could be used by the coalition as a justification to resume its offensive on Hodeidah.

WHERE DO THINGS STAND NOW?

Griffiths said when the deal was announced on Thursday that troop withdrawal from the port should begin “within days” and later from the city. International monitors would be deployed and all armed forces would pull back completely within 21 days.

The UAE has massed thousands of Yemeni forces — drawn from southern separatists, local units from the Red Sea coastal plain and a battalion led by a nephew of late former president Ali Abdullah Saleh — on the outskirts of Hodeidah.

A U.N.-chaired committee including both sides would oversee the withdrawal of forces. The United Nations has said it would play a leading role in the port, but the agreement did not spell out who would run the city.

In remarks illustrating the risks of a resumption of the bloodshed in Hodeidah, each side has said the city would ultimately fall under their control.

Griffiths has asked the U.N. Security Council to urgently pass a resolution backing deployment of a robust monitoring regime, headed by retired Dutch Major General Patrick Cammaert.

The envoy is also working on securing other confidence-building steps hanging over from the peace talks, including reopening Sanaa airport and supporting the central bank.

WHAT’S THE NEXT STEP TO PEACE?

A second round of talks is due to be held in January on a framework for negotiations and transitional governing body.

The Houthis, who have no traction in the south, want a meaningful role in Yemen’s government and to rebuild their stronghold of Saada in the north of the country, analysts said.

The analysts say Saudi Arabia can live with a Houthi political role as long as they disarm. Riyadh says it does not want a military movement like Lebanon’s Iran-allied Hezbollah near its borders.

“Moving forward, the inclusion of key factions that have so far been excluded from the process will be key,” said Adam Baron of the European Council for Foreign Relations.

Yemen’s fractious armed groups and parties, numerous before the war, have proliferated further since 2015, and each has their own agenda. The war also revived old strains between North and South Yemen, formerly separate countries which united into a single state in 1990 under slain former president Saleh.

Southern separatists resented concentration of resources in the north. Some of the Shi’ite Zaydi sect chafed as their north heartland became impoverished and in the late 1990s formed the Houthi group, which fought the army and forged ties with Iran. Jihadists set up an al Qaeda wing.

Mass pro-democracy protests in 2011 forced Saleh to step down after some of his former allies turned on him and the army split. His deputy Hadi was elected to a two-year term to oversee a democratic transition but was undermined.

In 2014, the Houthis seized Sanaa aided by Saleh loyalists, forcing Hadi to share power. When a federal constitution was proposed, both Houthis and southern separatists rejected it.

The Houthis arrested Hadi in 2015, but he escaped and fled to Aden. The coalition then entered the war on Hadi’s side.

(Additional reporting and writing by Ghaida Ghantous, Editing by William Maclean)

Yemen’s warring parties agree to Hodeidah ceasefire at end of peace talks

Head of Houthi delegation Mohammed Abdul-Salam (R) and Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yaman (2 L) shake hands next to United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres and Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom (L), during the Yemen peace talks closing press conference at the Johannesberg castle in Rimbo, near Stockholm December 13, 2018. TT News Agency/Pontus Lundahl via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. SWEDEN OUT.

By Aziz El Yaakoubi and Johan Sennero

RIMBO, Sweden (Reuters) – Yemen’s warring parties agreed to a ceasefire in the Houthi-held port city of Hodeidah and placing it under local control at the close of talks on Thursday in a breakthrough for U.N.-led peace efforts to end the war.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that a framework for political negotiations would be discussed at the next round of talks between the Iranian-aligned Houthis and the Saudi-backed government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Western nations, some of which supply arms and intelligence to the Saudi-led coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015, have pressed the two sides to agree confidence-building steps to pave the way for a wider truce and a political process to end the war that has killed tens of thousands of people and pushed Yemen to the verge of starvation.

The Houthis control most population centers including the capital Sanaa, from where they ousted Hadi’s government in 2014. It is now based in the southern port of Aden.

“You have reached an agreement on Hodeidah port and city, which will see a mutual re-deployment of forces from the port and the city, and the establishment of a Governorate-wide ceasefire,” Guterres said.

“The UN will play a leading role in the port,” he told a news conference in Rimbo, outside Stockholm.

U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths said armed forces of both parties would withdraw “within days” from Hodeidah port, the main entrypoint for most of Yemen’s commercial imports and vital aid supplies, and later from the city, where coalition troops have massed on the outskirts.

The withdrawal of armed forces would also include Salif port, used for grains, and that of Ras Isa, used for oil, which are both currently under Houthi control.

BREAKTHROUGH

“This is a minor breakthrough. They have been able to achieve more than anyone expected,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, Senior Analyst, Arabian Peninsula at International Crisis Group.

“Saudi Arabia has taken a firmer hand with the Hadi government, which has in turn been more cooperative.”

Riyadh has come under increased Western scrutiny over the Yemen war and its activities in the region following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate in October.

The Sunni Muslim Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened in the war in 2015 to restore Hadi’s government but has been bogged down in a military stalemate for years and wants to exit the costly war.

“Important political progress made including the status of Hodeida,” UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted.

He attributed the “significant breakthrough” to pressure brought on the Houthis by the offensive on Hodeidah, the group’s main supply line.

Guterres said the parties had made “real progress” and that the United Nations would pursue pending issues “without interruption”.

His envoy had also been seeking agreement on reopening Sanaa airport and shoring up the impoverished Arab country’s central bank. Most basic commodities are out of reach for millions of Yemenis.

Griffiths said he hoped a deal would be struck on reopening the airport over the next week following discussions in Sweden on whether flights would be inspected in government-held airports before flying in and out of Sanaa.

(Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Yemen talks set to start in Sweden after wounded Houthis evacuated

A wounded Houthi fighter, on a wheelchair, holds his passport at Sanaa airport during his evacuation from Yemen, December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

By Mohamed Ghobari and Aziz El Yaakoubi

ADEN/DUBAI (Reuters) – Yemeni Houthi officials are expected to travel to Sweden shortly for talks as early as Wednesday to end the nearly four-year-old war after the Saudi-led coalition allowed the evacuation of some of their wounded for treatment.

Prospects for convening talks have risen as Western allies press Saudi Arabia, leader of the Sunni Muslim alliance battling the Iranian-aligned Houthis, over a war that has killed more than 10,000 people and pushed Yemen to the brink of famine.

U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths arrived in the Houthi-held capital Sanaa on Monday to escort the Houthi delegation, a U.N. source told Reuters. The Saudi-backed government has said it would follow the Houthis to the talks, the first since 2016.

The peace talks may start on Wednesday, two sources familiar with the matter said. Griffiths shuttled between the parties to salvage a previous round that collapsed in September after the Houthis failed to show up.

Western powers, which provide arms and intelligence to the coalition, may now have greater leverage to demand action on Yemen after outrage over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul led to increased scrutiny of the kingdom’s activities in the region.

The U.S. Senate is due to consider this week a resolution to end support for the conflict, seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and its arch-foe in the Middle East, Iran.

A Houthi official told Reuters that their delegation could travel on Monday night or Tuesday morning. In addition to the evacuation of their wounded, the group had asked to travel on a plane not inspected by the Saudi-led coalition.

A Reuters photographer saw the group of 50 wounded fighters entered Sanaa airport early on Monday as the commercial plane hired by the United Nations to take them to Oman for treatment arrived. The aircraft departed later on Monday.

A Houthi official said the group has agreed with Griffiths that 50 companions would also go with the fighters.

The coalition said in a statement it had agreed on the evacuation for “for humanitarian considerations and as part of confidence-building measures” ahead of the talks, which are also due to focus on a transitional governing body.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry said it backed the talks and was ready to help find a political solution, Iranian state TV reported on Monday.

A wounded Houthi fighter walks at Sanaa airport during his evacuation from Yemen December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

A wounded Houthi fighter walks at Sanaa airport during his evacuation from Yemen December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

HODEIDAH CHALLENGE

Analysts said both parties showing up for the talks would be an achievement in itself, even if there are no concrete outcomes as Griffiths tries to overcome deep mistrust on all sides.

“Neither side wishes to be blamed for the dire consequences of the looming famine, which is starting to become a reality,” said Elisabeth Kendall, a senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Oxford University.

“But it remains to be seen whether the political will is really there to make the necessary concessions for peace.”

Some 8.4 million Yemenis are facing starvation, although the United Nations has warned that will probably rise to 14 million. Three-quarters of impoverished Yemen’s population, or 22 million people, require aid.

The Arab alliance intervened in the war in 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi but has bogged down in a military stalemate, despite superior air power, since seizing the southern port of Aden that year.

The Houthis, who are more adept at guerrilla warfare, hold most population centers including Sanaa and the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions that is now the focus of the war.

Griffiths hopes to reach a deal on reopening Sanaa airport and securing a prisoner swap and a ceasefire in Hodeidah as a foundation for a wider ceasefire, which would include a halt to coalition air strikes that have killed thousands of civilians as well as Houthi missile attacks on Saudi cities.

(Additional reporting by Hesham Hajali in CAIRO and Mohammed Ghobari in Aden, Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Toby Chopra; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

More than 80,000 Yemeni children may have died from hunger: humanitarian body

FILE PHOTO: A malnourished boy lies on a weighing scale at the malnutrition ward of al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

By Aziz El Yaakoubi and Mohammed Ghobari

DUBAI/ADEN (Reuters) – An estimated 85,000 children under five may have died from extreme hunger in Yemen since a Saudi-led coalition intervened in the civil war in 2015, a humanitarian body said on Wednesday, as the U.N. special envoy arrived in Yemen to pursue peace talks.

Western countries are pressing for a ceasefire and renewed peace efforts to end the disastrous conflict, which has unleashed the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis with 8.4 million people believed to be on the verge of starvation.

Save the Children said that according to a conservative estimate based on United Nations data, approximately 84,700 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition may have died between April 2015 and October 2018 in the impoverished country, where a Western-backed Arab alliance is battling the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement that holds the capital Sanaa.

“We are horrified that some 85,000 children in Yemen may have died because of the consequences of extreme hunger since the war began. For every child killed by bombs and bullets, dozens are dying from hunger and disease and it’s entirely preventable,” it said in a statement.

The last available figure from the United Nations for the death toll from the conflict, seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, was in 2016 and stood at more than 10,000.

The world body has not provided figures for the death toll from malnutrition but warned last month that half the population, or some 14 million people, could soon be on the brink of famine and completely relying on humanitarian aid.

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a database that tracks violence in Yemen, says around 57,000 people have been reported killed since the beginning of 2016.

The Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government that was ousted from Sanaa in 2014 by the Houthis, who control the most populated areas of the Arabian Peninsula country.

But since seizing the southern port city of Aden in 2015, the coalition has faced a military stalemate and has been focusing on wresting control of the main port city of Hodeidah to weaken the Houthis by cutting off their main supply line.

NO CEASEFIRE YET

The coalition last week ordered a halt to military operations in Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis. A few days later the Houthis announced a halt to missile and drone attacks on coalition leaders Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates along with their Yemeni allies.

However, Hodeidah has witnessed intense fighting in the past two days, mostly taking place at night, as each side tried to reinforce its positions during the de-escalation in hostilities.

“Loud bangs, shelling and gunfire could be heard all over the city until dawn,” a Hodeidah resident said on Wednesday.

A pro-coalition Yemeni military source told Reuters on Monday that a ceasefire in Hodeidah would start only after the U.N. Security Council passes a British-drafted resolution on Yemen.

Aid groups have warned against an all-out assault on the city, an entry point for more than 80 percent of Yemen’s food imports and humanitarian aid.

U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths arrived in Sanaa on Wednesday to meet with Houthi leaders to discuss convening peace talks in Sweden next month to agree on a framework for peace under a transitional government.

The Houthis failed to show up to peace talks in September. Kuwait has offered to provide planes for the parties to ensure the participation of both sides in Stockholm.

Griffiths faces a daunting challenge to overcome deep mistrust between all sides, including among allies, which makes any peace agreement fragile.

The draft resolution, seen by Reuters, calls for a halt to fighting in Hodeidah, a stop to attacks on populated areas across Yemen and an end to attacks on countries in the region.

It also calls for an unhindered flow of commercial and humanitarian goods across the impoverished country, including a large, fast injection of foreign currency into the economy through the Central Bank of Yemen and more aid funding.

(Writing By Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Angus MacSwan)