June 27, 2018 / 12:04 PM / 4 months ago

UN envoy resumes talks to avert all-out attack on Yemen's main port

* U.N. envoy meets exiled President Hadi in Aden

* Coalition of Arab states has captured airport

* U.N. fears all-out assault could cut lifeline to millions

By Mohamed Mokhashef

ADEN, June 27 (Reuters) - A U.N. special envoy met with Yemen’s exiled president on Wednesday as part of efforts to find a political solution that would avert an all-out assault on the country’s main port city, which the United Nations fears could trigger a famine.

A military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates launched an offensive on June 12 to drive the Iran-aligned Houthi movement from Hodeidah, the port city which serves as lifeline for millions of Yemenis facing starvation.

The Houthis have indicated they would be willing to hand over management of Hodeidah port to the United Nations, and Washington has encouraged the Arabs to accept such a deal, Western sources have told Reuters.

But a UAE official said on Tuesday that the Houthis must quit the Red Sea city altogether as a condition for any peace deal.

The Arab states have been battling since 2015 to restore a government that was driven out of the capital by the Houthis, Shi’ite fighters which Yemen’s neighbours view as agents of Iran. The Houthis now control most of Yemen’s populated areas as well as the capital. They deny they are Iranian pawns and say they are defending the country from foreign invasion.

U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths, who has already held meetings with the Houthis, met President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in the southern city of Aden, temporary headquarters of his exiled Yemeni government.

Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television on Wednesday quoted sources as saying Griffiths told Hadi that the Houthis had agreed to hand management of the port to the United Nations, but Hadi stressed that the Houthis must completely quit the city.

An official in the exiled government told Reuters the talks were still ongoing.

Fighting has abated in the last week since UAE-backed forces took control of Hodeidah airport. But the United Nations fears the next phase of the battle could see the Arab forces attack the city centre and move on the port, causing both high casualties in the city itself and a potential humanitarian catastrophe if supplies to the rest of the country are cut.

The United Nations has been struggling to push the warring parties to the negotiating table as it seeks a peace deal in the three-year conflict.

The war has killed more than 10,000 people and created the world’s most urgent humanitarian emergency, with 22 million people dependent on aid and 8.4 million at risk of starving.

The Arab states say they must recapture Hodeidah to deprive the Houthis of their main source of income and prevent them from smuggling in arms.

Western powers have tacitly backed the Arab states in the conflict and the United States, Britain and France sell them billions of dollars a year in arms. But the prospect that a battle could trigger a humanitarian catastrophe has prompted the Western states to urge caution on their allies.

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