By Aziz El Yaakoubi
RIMBO, Sweden (Reuters) – Yemen’s Saudi-backed government has proposed reopening the Houthi-held airport in the capital Sanaa on condition planes are inspected in the airports of Aden or Sayun which are under its control, two government officials said on Friday.
The idea was floated at U.N-sponsored Yemen peace talks in Sweden aimed at building confidence-building measures that could eventually lead to a ceasefire to halt air strikes by a Saudi-led coalition that have killed thousands of civilians, and Houthi missile attacks on Saudi cities.
Yemen’s warring sides agreed on Thursday to free thousands of prisoners, in what U.N. mediator Martin Griffiths called a hopeful start to the first peace talks in two years to end a war that has pushed millions of people to the verge of starvation.
Griffiths wants a deal on reopening Sanaa airport, shoring up the central bank and securing a truce in Hodeidah, the country’s main port, held by the Houthis and a focus of the war after the coalition launched a campaign to capture it this year.
Marwan Dammaj, Yemen’s minister of culture in the internationally recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, told Reuters Sanaa airport should be re-opened to put “an end to the people’s suffering regarding transportation”.
“But it should be a domestic airport from where Yemenis can go to Aden and then leave to international destinations,” added Dammaj, a member of the government delegation.
Hamza Al Kamali, another member of the delegation, said airplanes must stop in airports in the southern city of Aden or Sayun, east of the capital, for inspection before leaving Yemen.
The Houthis were not immediately available for comment.
The war has killed tens of thousands of people and spawned what the United Nations calls the world’s direst humanitarian crisis, since a Saudi-led Arab coalition intervened in 2015 to restore a government ousted by the Iran-aligned Houthi movement.
No talks have been held since 2016, and the last attempt in Geneva in September failed when the Houthis did not attend.
The United Nations is trying to avert a full-scale assault on Hodeidah, the entry point for most of Yemen’s commercial goods and aid.
Both sides have reinforced positions in the Red Sea city in sporadic battles after a de-escalation last month. The other main route in and out of Houthi territory is Sanaa airport, but access is restricted by the Saudi-led coalition which controls the air space.
Yemen’s government is sticking to its position that Hodeidah should be under its control, said Kamali.
“We say that the city should be controlled by a police force from Hodeidah’s sons and not the Houthis. We cannot legitimise the presence of the Houthi in Hodeidah.”
The war, widely seen across the region as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has been in stalemate for years, threatening supply lines to feed nearly 30 million inhabitants.
The Houthis control Sanaa and the other most populated areas, while the ousted government based in the southern city of Aden has struggled to advance despite the aid of Arab states.
Humanitarian suffering in one of the world’s poorest countries has added to pressure on the parties to end the conflict, with faith in the Saudi-led war effort flagging among Western allies that arm and support the coalition.
Outrage over the Oct. 2 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate has also undermined Western support for Riyadh’s regional activities.
(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Alison Williams)