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'Cautious optimism' as Yemenis hold second day of peace talks

UN hopes to find durable settlement to crisis as delegates from opposing camps engage in direct talks for first time
The opening of Yemen peace talks on 15 December 2015 in Magglingen, Switzerland (AFP/ UN PHOTOS)

BIEL, Switzerland - Representatives from Yemen's warring parties resumed peace talks in Switzerland on Wednesday in a second day of UN-sponsored efforts to end the conflict in the country.

The first day of talks appears to have ended with "cautious optimism," one of the delegates who requestted anonymity told Middle East Eye. 

Representatives from rival sides had sat down with each other for hours, with the last of Tuesday's sessions ending at 11pm local time. Negotiations are expected to continue until Sunday.

Participants include representatives of the Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi on one side; and members of the Houthis and their allies, the General People's Congress party (GPC) led by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, on the other.

While officials from both sides told Reuters on Wednesday that a large prisoner exchange had been agreed, sources subsequently denied the reports to MEE. 

Getting the rival sides to sit around the same table in the Swiss Olympic Hotel, in the quiet town of Biel, is seen as a far cry from an earlier failed round of talks, and a significant first success for Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the UN's special envoy to Yemen. 

The UN says the talks between the Hadi government and the Houthi-GPC alliance aim to find a "durable settlement" to a crisis that entered its ninth month this week.

Ahmed said the truce "should mark the end of military violence in Yemen and the transition to progress based on negotiations, dialogue and consensus," before adding that "making peace is a fundamental requirement to rebuild Yemen, rehabilitate the basic infrastructure, address the consequences of the war, provide the necessary environment to normalise life in all governorates, and resume economic activity".

Over the past few weeks, the UN envoy had put in a lot of effort, setting a clear agenda and framework for the peace talks, as well as imposing a media blackout to foil any attempts at interference or sabotage.

The current round of talks is accompanied by a ceasefire agreement, which had been a key condition of the Houthis during earlier negotiations in Muscat, Oman.

The Saudi-led coalition's acceptance of the ceasefire, following weeks of pressure from the US and others, was the first tangible compromise on its part, intended as a signal of its serious desire for a lasting settlement.

However, a only few hours after the ceasefire came into effect, there have been reports – firmly denied by Houthi sources – of multiple breaches in Taiz, Abyan, and Althalea.

According to a GPC delegate at the Biel talks, who spoke to MEE on condition of anonymity, “some commanders do not follow our orders because of personal motivations, we cannot be held responsible”.

The Houthis have also accused the Saudi-led coalition of violating the ceasefire.

After an opening prayer, the Tuesday meeting began with each delegate given an opportunity to read a 10-minute statement. This was followed by a “trust-building phase”, arguably the most critical part of the proceedings. As Ambassador Khalid Al-Yemany, a member of the Hadi government delegation in Biel, told MEE: “If we succeed with the trust-building then we will have created a very strong base for the success of these peace talks.”

This trust-building phase is composed of three key steps: respecting the ceasefire agreement; the release of all political prisoners held by the Houthis - including the former defence minister; and, finally, allowing humanitarian aid into Taiz with immediate effect. According to al-Yemany, “these are simple requests that can be implemented instantly. If they are not, then we will know that these talks have failed."

The current talks bear little resemblance to the earlier round in Geneva. This time, it is evident that all sides are treating the negotiations with a greater degree of seriousness. 

The renewed sense of urgency is partly driven by the fact 6,000 people - including more than 3,200 civilians - have died since the Geneva talks, and 21 million Yemenis (80 percent of the population) are today desperately in need of humanitarian aid. However, the stalemate on the ground also appears to have created a sense of urgency, with both sides seemingly coming to a realisation that a conclusive military victory is unachievable, and that the only way out is through diplomatic negotiations.

While the Houthis have been clearly weakened by the continuous campaign of air strikes over the last nine months, the Saudi-led coalition and Hadi government have been on the receiving end of immense pressure from allies, particularly in the US and UK, where there is concern that US and UK-made weaponry may have been used in possible war crimes.

At the forthcoming UN Security council meeting, scheduled for the 22 December, the Saudis are likely to come in for severe criticism if the current negotiations are conducted with the same nonchalance as the previous round.

The Houthis have already confirmed they are willing to accept UN resolution 2216, including its demand that they disarm and withdraw from cities under their control, in exchange for a complete end to the Saudi-led coalition air and ground campaign. However, seemingly unwilling to forgo hopes of an elusive victory for their side, delegates are currently arguing over what should come first - Houthi withdrawal or cessation of coalition bombings.

Meanwhile, almost 5,000 kilometers away, Yemenis' misery continues to deepen by the day.