UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. special envoy for Yemen who will be leading peace talks next week between the government and Shiite rebels said Friday that peace has never been as close as it is today.
Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed said the agreement by both sides to an open-ended cessation of hostilities that began at midnight on April 10 and their commitment to attend the talks starting Monday in Kuwait highlight the potential for peace.
He urged the government and the rebels known as Houthis to "drop their destructive and belligerent attitudes," agree to overcome obstacles, and restore peace after more than 18 months of war. The conflict has killed more than 6,400 people, injured over 30,000, and devastated the Arab world's most impoverished country.
"Yemen is now at a critical crossroad," he told the U.N. Security Council. "One path leads to peace while the other can only worsen the security and humanitarian situation."
Ould Cheikh Ahmed said recent events over the last weeks "have given me hope" despite "a worrying number of serious violations" of the cessation of hostilities and fighting in the city of Taiz, which the rebels have besieged for nearly a year.
Yemen's conflict pits the government, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, against the Houthis who are allied with a former president. The Houthis took over the capital, Sanaa, in September 2014, and the U.S.-backed coalition began airstrikes against them in March 2015. Al-Qaida extremists, the Islamic State group, southern separatists and other militants have capitalized on the chaos of Yemen's civil war.
"On the security front," Ould Cheikh Ahmed said, "Yemen is facing a brutal war on one hand and a significant terrorist threat on the other."
In the search for peace, he noted that the government and rebels praised Saudi Arabia for agreeing to settle border disputes with the Houthis, which paved the way for the cessation of hostilities.
At the peace talks, Ould Cheikh Ahmed said he will encourage both sides to negotiate a way forward in the following areas: creation of interim security arrangements, withdrawal of militias and armed groups, handover of heavy weapons to the government, restoration of state institutions, resumption of an inclusive political dialogue, and the release of political prisoners and detainees.
"A positive outcome will require difficult compromises from all sides, as well as determination to reach an agreement," he said.
Yemen's U.N. Ambassador Khaled Alyemany told the council "the government has extended an olive branch to promote peace" and in the eyes of the Yemeni people the talks "are the last chance for peace."
He urged the council to call for an end to Iran's "interference in the region," citing the weapons Tehran has sent to the rebels which have fueled the conflict.
Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Kyung-Wha Kang said the conflict has forced 2.8 million people from their homes and left 14.1 million people without adequate health care. The World Food Program is providing food to about 3.5 million people every month, but many more need help, she said.
Kang told the council that "there is some cause for very cautious optimism" as a result of the cessation of hostilities, but the U.N. and aid groups are still not getting the unhindered access called for in the agreement. She said humanitarian operations also continue to be hampered by "bureaucratic impediments" and a shortage of funds with donors providing only $296 million of the $1.8 billion required for Yemen this year.