Saudi-led military operations in Yemen are nearing their end as the focus turns to political talks, Britain’s foreign minister said Wednesday, but heavy fighting continued in the city of Taez.
“We detect the military phase of this campaign is coming to a close as the coalition forces have established a dominant military position,” Philip Hammond told reporters after talks with King Salman and leading members of the royal family.
He said they focused on the need “for now accelerating the political discussion” and ensuring the Huthi rebels and their allies engage in “serious and sensible” talks.
The UN special envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, said on Friday the Huthis and backers of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh had “clearly committed” to carrying out Security Council Resolution 2216.
Adopted in April, it calls for a negotiated withdrawal by the rebels from key cities and a surrender of all heavy weapons to the state.
The envoy said the government of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi had agreed to send a delegation to the forthcoming negotiations, for which no date has been set.
Previous attempts to hold negotiations collapsed but Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said: “We’re optimistic that the talks will lead somewhere.”
At a news conference with Hammond, Jubeir also said military action appeared to be heading towards a conclusion.
But clashes raged with the Huthis Wednesday in the central city of Taez as coalition aircraft dropped arms and ammunition to the loyalists locked in battle with them, military sources said.
And on Wednesday evening warplanes bombed rebel positions in the west and south of Taez, a military source said.
The Huthis, backed by Saudi Arabia’s regional rival Iran, overran Sanaa in September 2014 and went on to seize control of several regions, aided by elite forces loyal to Saleh.
Riyadh formed the Arab coalition and began air strikes in Yemen in March, later sending in ground troops to support local forces.
In July the anti-rebel forces pushed the Huthis from five southern provinces but the rebels still hold the capital and are battling in Taez.
Nearly 5,000 people have been killed in the war, more than half of them civilians, according to UN estimates.
– Food, fuel to flow –
Ould Cheikh Ahmed told the Security Council that the people of Yemen faced a “catastrophic” situation, with up to 21 million — 80 percent of the population — in need of humanitarian aid.
A coalition naval blockade has prevented vessels from bringing fuel supplies to Yemen, with drastic effects on hospitals in particular, Ould Cheikh Ahmed said.
But Jubeir told reporters the kingdom “has taken steps to facilitate entry of humanitarian aid”, with about 20 ships off Yemen’s Red Sea coast.
Hammond said he was “pleased to hear this morning during our discussions detail about the opening up of the Red Sea ports” for commercial traffic.
This would allow food, fuel and other essentials as well as humanitarian aid, Hammond said.
Rights groups have repeatedly criticised the coalition’s air strikes in Yemen, saying they have hit areas where there are no military targets.
In the latest alleged incident, UN chief Ban Ki-moon denounced what he said Tuesday were strikes by Saudi-led warplanes on a hospital operated by international charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
The building in the rebel stronghold of Sadaa was hit repeatedly on Monday night but there were no deaths, MSF said.
Shelling from Yemen and border skirmishes have caused dozens of military and civilian casualties in southern Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s civil defence agency said missiles from Yemen killed two residents of the kingdom’s Najran border region Tuesday.
A third person was wounded and later died, local media reported.