By Aziz El Yaakoubi
DUBAI (Reuters) – Yemen’s Houthi group is expected to travel to Sweden as early as Monday for peace talks after the Saudi-led coalition approved the evacuation of some of their wounded for treatment, paving the way for negotiations to end the nearly four-year-old war.
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.
Prospects for convening talks have increased 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.
The peace talks may start on Wednesday, two sources familiar with the matter said, after U.N. special envoy Martin 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 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, which is seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and its arch foe, Shi’ite Iran.
A Houthi official told Reuters that their delegation could travel on Monday night or Tuesday morning. In addition the evacuation of their wounded, the group had asked to travel on a plane not inspected by the coalition.
A Reuters photographer saw the group of 50 wounded fighters entered Sanaa airport to wait for a U.N. commercial plane that would take them to Oman for treatment.
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.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry said it backs the talks and was ready to help find a political solution, Iranian state TV reported on Monday.
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 likely rise to 14 million. Three-quarters of impoverished Yemen’s population, or 22 million people, require aid.
The alliance intervened in the war in 2015 to restore the internationally recognised government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi but has faced military stalemate, despite superior air power, since seizing the southern port city of Aden that year.
The Houthis, who are more adept at guerrilla warfare, hold most population centres including Sanaa and the port city of Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions that is now a 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 truce, including a halt to coalition air strikes that have killed thousands of civilians and 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 Angus MacSwan)