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New peace talks hopes follow week of Yemen escalation

Rescue teams and bystanders gather at the site of an airstrike on a funeral hall in the capital Sanaa on October 8, 2016 © AFP/File / Mohammed Huwais

Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Oct 16 – A roller-coaster week in Yemen has seen a major escalation in fighting swiftly followed by efforts to ease tensions that could open the door to renewed peace talks, experts said Sunday.

“I am optimistic for a very simple reason, because both parties are getting tired, they don’t want to maintain the conflict because it is costly for both of them,” in terms of financial as well as human losses, said Mustafa Alani, a senior adviser to the Geneva-based Gulf Research Centre.

A Saudi-led coalition has intervened since March 2015 in support of Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi’s internationally-recognised government after it was forced to flee as Shiite Huthi rebels seized the capital and pushed south.

The coalition has carried out hundreds of air strikes and provided ground troops to support Hadi’s forces.

But it has failed to dislodge the Iran-backed Huthi rebels, who are allied with forces loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, from key areas including Sanaa.

The rebels still control large parts of the north, their historic stronghold areas, and other regions of western and central Yemen.

Government forces have recaptured the south and east but failed to make any significant advances.

“Both parties are now under huge pressure to find… an exit strategy” after having realised that “they cannot secure perfect victory”, Alani told AFP.

The conflict has killed almost 6,900 people, wounded more than 35,000 and displaced at least three million since March last year, according to the United Nations.

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Civilians have paid the heaviest price in an increasingly dire humanitarian crisis.

One of the deadliest coalition attacks came on October 8 when an air raid on a funeral ceremony killed 140 people and wounded 525 others, drawing severe criticism of the Arab coalition, which is logistically supported by Washington.

UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed who had been hoping to announce a 72-hour truce for Yemen said the attack took place “amid significant progress in the long peace negotiations, and at a time when we were negotiating a durable accord”.

Rescue teams and bystanders gather at the site of an airstrike on a funeral hall in the capital Sanaa on October 8, 2016 © AFP / AFP

Unprecedented developments rapidly followed with Washington accusing the rebels of firing missiles at US warships in the Red Sea on October 9 and 12 that fell short of their targets.

The US military responded by hitting radar sites in territory controlled by the insurgents, defence officials in Washington said, in the first direct American action against the rebels.

– US citizens released –

Francois Heisbourg, an analyst at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, said that the unprecedented US intervention was unlikely to exceed occasional “limited” strikes.

And in a key step towards a de-escalation, the Saudi-led coalition on Saturday acknowledged that one of its warplanes had “wrongly targeted” the funeral in Sanaa based on “incorrect information”.

The coalition also announced disciplinary measures and compensation to families of victims and an easing of the air blockade it enforces so as to allow the evacuation of the most seriously wounded for treatment abroad.

This opened way for an Omani aircraft to evacuate from Sanaa more than 100 of the most seriously wounded in the strike on the funeral.

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Simultaneously, Muscat said it had mediated the release of two American citizens held in Yemen and flew them to Oman on Saturday night on the same relief flight, with US State Department spokesman Mark Toner noting the “humanitarian gesture by the Huthis”.

The October 8 strike in Sanaa prompted an international outcry and strong criticism even from Saudi Arabia’s closest Western allies © AFP / Mohammed Huwais

The Omani aircraft also flew home to Sanaa rebel negotiators who had been stranded in Muscat since the collapse of UN-brokered peace talks in Kuwait in August because of the air blockade.

The warring parties are under “huge international pressure inside and outside (the) Security Council” to resume talks, said Alani.

Britain announced Friday it will present a draft resolution to the UN Security Council demanding an immediate ceasefire in Yemen and resumption of peace talks.

In April last year, the Security Council adopted Resolution 2216 which calls on the Huthis to withdraw from territories they occupied in 2014, to hand over their arms and return state institutions to the legitimate government.

Military and economic pressures could now force the rebels “to accept… parts of the resolution, not necessarily all of it”, said Alani.

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