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New UN-Backed Yemen Peace Talks Begin in Sweden


An exterior view of Johannesberg Castle, in Rimbo, 50 km north of Stockholm, Sweden, Dec. 4, 2018. The castle is the site for Yemen peace talks.

Yemen's warring factions are in Sweden to participate in a new round of peace talks aimed at ending the four-year-old war that has pushed the small Arabian Peninsula country on the brink of famine.

The U.N.-brokered talks, which began Thursday in the city of Rimbo, are the first negotiations between the Saudi-backed government and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in two years. These new talks are being held amid growing international outrage over the dire humanitarian crisis, coupled with the recent killing of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul.

Zubair Iqbal, a scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, told VOA that Saudi Arabia has been pushed back to the negotiating table due to a push in the U.S. Senate to cut off aid to Riyadh in response to Khashoggi's murder.

Martin Griffiths, the U.N. official negotiating between the two camps, said the main issues on the agenda are control of Sana'a's key international airport and humanitarian access and a possible power-sharing agreement. The two sides have already agreed to a prisoner swap, but observers are playing down hopes for any major breakthroughs.

A spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged parties to make progress on the agenda outlined by Griffiths, "by exercising flexibility and engaging in good faith without pre-conditions."

"The secretary-general appeals to the warring parties to continue the de-escalation in Hudaydah and explore other measures to mitigate the life-threatening economic and humanitarian situation," the spokesperson said in a statement Thursday. "He reminds the parties that a negotiated political settlement through inclusive intra-Yemeni dialogue is the only way to end the conflict and address the ongoing humanitarian crisis. "

Iqbal said the talks in Sweden could serve as a starting point to "build some degree of confidence between the two opposing parties, so they can go back and talk to their supporters and work out something that may allow for some compromise down the road."

The war began when the Houthi rebels seized control of the capital, Sana'a, in 2014, and overthrew the Saudi-aligned government. The conflict escalated when a Saudi-led Arab coalition began warring with the Houthis in an attempt to restore the government.

At least 10,000 Yemenis have been killed since the fighting began. The head of the U.N.'s World Food Program said about 12 million Yemenis are suffering from "severe hunger."

Margaret Besheer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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