KUWAIT CITY (AP) — U.N.-backed peace talks between Yemen's warring sides began in Kuwait on Thursday evening in an effort to end the impoverished country's year-long conflict that has killed nearly 9,000 people — a third of them civilians, according to the United Nations.
The talks were originally slated to begin Monday but were delayed because of an earlier boycott by the Yemeni Shiite rebels known as Houthis and their allies.
There have been previous attempts at peace talks. This round in Kuwait is aimed at finding ways to resolve the conflict between Yemen's internationally recognized government, which is backed by a Saudi-led military coalition, and the Houthis and their allies, which include forces loyal to former longtime Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Just a day before the talks kicked off, the Houthis warned they could suspend their participation if there are continued violations of a cease-fire in place since April 10. Both sides of the fighting have violated the fragile cease-fire.
The war has devastated Yemen, with civilians unable to access hospitals, schools or electricity. More than 14 million Yemenis lack access to sufficient food and some 2.4 million people have been displaced by the war.
A total of 14 delegates from each side are reportedly taking part in the negotiations, which are being mediated by U.N. envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed.
The envoy opened the talks in Kuwait, urging both sides to have "good intentions" and "make concessions". He told the delegates, seated at a large round table, that only they can bring stability back to Yemen and that they needed to "turn the page" for the country's future.
The talks should "provide a strong foundation for a new political consensus, to help Yemen achieve the stability and security that its people deserve and its future requires," Cheikh Ahmed said. "The path to peace may be difficult but I believe that it is clearly in reach if all parties engage in good faith."
"Peace is a choice, make it your choice," he said, addressing the delegates.
The Saudi-led coalition of mostly Arab countries — including Kuwait, which is hosting the talks — has been bombing the Houthis since late March 2015 to try and roll back their takeover of the capital, Sanaa, which forced the Saudi and U.S.-backed interim Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi into exile.
Washington has assisted the Saudi-led coalition with logistical and intelligence support, including aerial refueling. However, the United States is concerned by the chaos fueled by the war.
Al-Qaida's branch in Yemen has seized several cities along the coastline and the Islamic State group, gaining ground amid Yemen's civil war. It has claimed responsibility for an attack on two mosques in Sanaa that killed more than 130 people last year.
Speaking in Saudi Arabia on Thursday after a summit with Gulf Arab leaders, President Barack Obama told reporters that Yemen's ceasefire "allows us to build a peace process that can relieve the suffering of the people" of Yemen.
The Saudis accuse regional rival Iran of arming and training the Houthis, whose stronghold is just south of the kingdom's border. Iran says it has only provided the rebels with political support.
Despite a year of fighting, the Houthis still retain control in much of the country's northern regions, including Sanaa. The conflict has also fueled secessionist aspirations among Yemen's Southerners for independence.
Batrawy reported from Dubai. Associated Press writers Ahmed al-Haj in Sanna, Yemen, Cara Anna at the United Nations and Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.