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Yemen war rivals double down as Sweden hosts UN talks

The talks in Sweden are the first in two years in a conflict which has pushed impoverished Yemen to the brink of mass starvation. While the days leading up to the talks looked promising, with the government and rebels agreeing on a prisoner swap deal and the evacuation of wounded insurgents for medical treatment in Oman, the atmosphere between the two sides was tense as the talks opened.

Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani, who heads the Saudi-backed government's delegation to the UN-sponsored talks, told AFP his team would follow through with a planned prisoner swap with the Huthi rebels. But he refused to compromise on the flashpoint city of Hodeida, home to Yemen's most valuable port.

"The Huthi militias must withdraw from the city of Hodeida and its port and hand it over to the legitimate government, and specifically internal security forces," Yamani said.

Hamid Issam, a member of the team of Iran-backed Huthi rebels in Sweden, however, dismissed Yamani's role in the talks altogether.

"We came here with the intention that these talks would succeed," Issam told AFP.

"But it is not up to Khaled al-Yamani… It is up to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States," he continued. "If they could have taken Hodeida four years ago, they would have. They have not been able to take it, and they will not be able to take it as long as the people of Yemen are fighting."

The talks, being held in the picturesque Swedish village of Rimbo, around 60 kilometres north of Stockholm where warring parties have to eat in the same cafeteria, have been months in the making and are slated to run for one week.

'Critical opportunity' –

On the agenda is Hodeida. Not on the table are negotiations on a solution to the conflict between the government of Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, based in southern Yemen, and the northern Huthi rebels, according to UN envoy Martin Griffiths.

The Saudi-led military coalition, which includes troops trained by the US and UAE, has for months led an offensive to retake Hodeida, the last rebel stronghold on Yemen's Red Sea coast and the conduit for 90 percent of vital food imports.

The move has sparked fears for more than 150,000 civilians trapped in the city as even hospitals were seized by militants.

Saudi Arabia and its allies accuse the rebels of smuggling arms from Iran through Hodeida, a charge Tehran denies.

More than three years since Saudi Arabia and its allies joined President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi's fight against the Huthis, Yemen is now home to what the UN calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis with 14 million people facing starvation amid war as a frail economy crumbles.

Griffiths, the UN special envoy for Yemen, said the talks presented a "critical opportunity" but did not amount to negotiations on a full end to the conflict between the Iran-backed Huthi rebels and a rival government alliance led by Saudi Arabia.

Speaking on condition of anonymity as Thursday's talks wound down, a UN official said the talks marked "the beginning of difficult work".

'Humanitarian pipeline'

Griffiths said the UN was willing to step in in Hodeida, an offer the Saudi-led coalition has rejected unless the rebels withdraw completely from Yemen's western coastline.

"We'd like to take Hodeida out of the conflict because … it's the humanitarian pipeline to the rest of the country. We would like to see that airport open, but it needs to be assessed," he said. "We'd like to see progress on this."

The head of the Huthis' political council, Mohammed Ali Huthi, threatened Thursday to bar UN planes from using the Yemeni capital's airport unless the talks led to its full reopening.

"Unless the airport is opened to all our wounded and sick… then it will remain closed," said Huthi delegate Issam, referring to demands the rebels be allowed to evacuate more fighters for medical treatment.

Sanaa international airport, located in the rebel-held capital, has been largely shut down for years. It has been the target of air raids by the Saudi-led coalition, which also controls Yemeni airspace.

International pressure to end the Yemen conflict reached unprecedented heights in recent weeks, as all eyes turned to Saudi Arabia's policies following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Griffiths' plans to host talks in Geneva in September collapsed on the opening day after the rebels refused to leave the Yemeni capital, saying they feared they would not be allowed to return.

By AFP's Natacha Yazbeck

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