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Sweden Hosts Peace Talks Between Yemen's Warring Sides


At a castle in Sweden, peace talks are underway. Yemen's Houthi rebels are meeting the government that they chased out of the nation's capital in 2015 after the Houthis took over Saudi Arabia and its allies opened up a punishing air and ground assault against the rebels. That war has intensified ever since, leaving thousands of people dead and half the country, half of Yemen, on the verge of famine. Expectations for these talks are low, but these talks are seen as a start. And let's bring in NPR's Ruth Sherlock, who has been to Yemen to cover this conflict. She's following these talks from Beirut. Hi there, Ruth.


GREENE: I mean, this humanitarian crisis is unthinkable. How realistic is it that these talks could lead to something?

SHERLOCK: Well, at the moment, this is all about building confidence and setting the stage for bigger negotiations to take place next year. So what they're trying to do here is focus on addressing the dire humanitarian situation. The U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths is going to try to, kind of, try to secure a cease-fire around the port of Hodeidah. This is a vital humanitarian lifeline in Yemen that has 70 percent of imports coming through here. But remember, these sides - the fighting is so rancorous now that the two sides that have come to Sweden aren't even going to meet face-to-face. The U.N. is going to shuttle between them. So even achieving any, like, small successes like this would be a huge deal.

GREENE: Well, the interesting question here - because a lot of observers have said this has been a terrible, I mean, humanitarian crisis for all this time, and the world hasn't paid attention. It seems like the world is paying more attention now because of the spotlight on the Saudis, all the outrage over the killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Could that change the dynamic here somehow?

SHERLOCK: Well, it seems to have motivated more members of the U.S. Congress to try to cut U.S. support to the Saudi coalition in the Yemen conflict. The U.S. has provided logistical support to the Saudis and provides them with the weaponry with which they fight. I asked Peter Salisbury, a Yemen consultant with the Crisis Group, about how he sees the Trump administration dealing with all this.

PETER SALISBURY: A cynic might argue that the Trump administration has been doing its best to signal good intentions but really been trying to ward off congressional action and bad PR for themselves and the Saudis.

SHERLOCK: So in the weeks after the Khashoggi killing, the administration seemed to signal support for a cease-fire in Yemen and an end to the hostilities. But, Salisbury said, they've also quietly opposed a draft U.N. resolution to do that. And they've made clear that, despite the changing international opinion, they continue to support their Saudi allies. They blame Saudi's regional rival, Iran, which gives some support to the Houthis in Yemen, for the ongoing war.

GREENE: And what's the latest from the ground right now?

SHERLOCK: It's terrible. You know, many have been killed in the fighting, and there've been notorious incidents of civilians killed in the Saudi bombing campaign. But the problem is also humanitarian. A new U.N. report expected to be published today will have detailed figures on how tens of thousands of people are now starving and thousands have already died of starvation. So the thing that really hits home here is that this near-famine in the 21st century is manmade and a direct result of this war.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Beirut.

Ruth, thanks so much.

SHERLOCK: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.