Yemen Rebels Rebuff Govt. Demand for Hodeida Withdrawal
Yemen's Huthi rebels will not hand over the key port of Hodeida to the rival government, a rebel representative said Friday, as the two parties met for U.N.-brokered talks in Sweden.
"This is not on the table," Abdulmalik al-Ajri, a member of the rebel delegation told AFP after the Yemeni government said it was seeking a full Huthi withdrawal from the flashpoint port city.
The Iran-backed rebels, locked in a war with the President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi and his allies in a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia, control the Red Sea city of Hodeida, a conduit for 90 percent of food imports.
The Saudi-led coalition has for months led an offensive to retake Hodeida.
The battle has sparked fears for more than 150,000 civilians trapped in the city. Saudi Arabia and its allies accuse the rebels of smuggling arms from Iran through Hodeida as well as the defunct Sanaa international airport, a charge Tehran denies.
U.N. Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths, who has pushed for months for the Yemen talks, urged both parties to spare Hodeida as the talks opened on Thursday.
Ajri also rebuffed a government suggestion that the defunct Sanaa international airport be reopened as a hub for domestic flights.
"Sanaa airport is an international airport," Ajri said, slamming government-imposed restrictions on the airport as "arbitrary."
The airport was shut down in the aftermath of 2014, when the Huthis overran the capital and a string of Yemeni ports, triggering the intervention of the Saudi-led alliance on behalf of the embattled government the following year.
Saudi Arabia and its allies have targeted the airport and control Yemeni airspace.
The Sweden talks, which opened Thursday, are the first meeting between the warring parties since 2016, when more than three months of negotiations in Kuwait failed to yield a breakthrough in the war.
The Yemen war has triggered what the U.N. calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis and pushed the impoverished country to the brink of famine, with 14 million people facing imminent mass starvation.