Talks aimed at ending Yemen’s war opened in Kuwait on Thursday, with Kuwait’s top diplomat appealing to both sides to “turn war into peace” after more than a year of conflict which has killed more than 6,200 people and caused a humanitarian crisis.
Yemen’s foreign minister warned against high expectations from the UN-sponsored talks, which brought together the Houthi group and its General People’s Congress party allies with the Saudi-backed government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The talks, originally scheduled to start on Monday, were delayed over accusations by the Houthi group of truce violations and disagreements over the agenda for the negotiations.
Kuwait’s foreign minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah, in an opening speech at Bayan Palace, urged Yemenis to “turn war into peace and backwardness into development”.
The talks are based on UN Security Council resolution 2216 which calls for the Houthis to withdraw from areas they seized since 2014 and hand heavy weapons back to the government, UN special envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed said.
“The choice today is one of two options: a safe homeland that ensures security for all of its citizens… or remnants of a land whose sons die everyday,” Ould Cheikh Ahmed said in an opening speech.
The talks are expected to focus on creating a more inclusive government and restoring state authority over the country, which is now divided between the Houthis and Hadi’s administration.
The war has caused a major humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula. Apart from the more than 6,200 killed, the United Nations says some 35,000 people have been wounded and more than 2.5 million people displaced.
The fighting has also allowed the militant Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Isalmic State to consolidate their presence in the country next door to the world’s top oil exporter.
The United States and the Saudi-led coalition welcomed the start of the talks.
“We urge the parties to fully engage in good faith in order to end the military conflict immediately and to return to a peaceful political process,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in Washington.
The Saudi-led coalition spokesman, Brigadier-General Ahmed Asseri, speaking to Dubai-based al-Arabia Television, said: “Everybody knows that the way out in the end is political, and the issue will not end through military means, and the coalition has no desire to … prolong the situation.”
Ould Cheikh Ahmed outlined five points which he said were derived from UN Security Council resolution 2216 as the basis for the talks, officially dubbed as “consultations”.
These included withdrawal from cities seized by the Houthis since the crisis began in 2014, forming a more inclusive government and handing over heavy weapons to the new government.
The chief Houthi negotiator, Mohammed Abdul-Salam, registered his delegation’s objections to what he said were continuing air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition and to the five-point agenda outlined by Ould Cheikh Ahmed, saying they were not clear enough.
The crisis began in September 2014 when the Iran-allied Houthis seized the capital Sanaa. A Saudi-led Arab alliance intervened last year, launching a campaign of mostly air strikes against the Houthis in support of Hadi’s forces.
The Houthi group and the GPC had accused the Saudi-led coalition and Hadi supporters of failing to honor a truce that began on April 10, and refused to send their negotiators to Kuwait until the truce was consolidated.
They agreed to join the talks following intervention by the UN Security Council permanent members and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Yemeni Foreign Minister Abdel-Malek al-Mekhlafi, speaking before the talks, said the government delegation would do all it could to make the talks a success.
“The Houthis and Saleh’s party, by refusing to arrive on the agreed time, and by putting a series of conditions and by saying they reserve the right to boycott sessions if their conditions are met — all of these have lowered the ceiling of expectations,” Mekhlafi told Reuters.
The meeting adjourned until Friday afternoon.