UN to convene Yemen talks in Sweden soon

Members of the Yemeni pro-government forces are pictured on the eastern outskirts of the port city of Hodeida

The United Nations intends to convene peace talks on Yemen soon after receiving firm assurances from the parties that they will attend negotiations in Sweden, the UN envoy said Friday.

The Saudi-backed government and the Huthi rebels have shown a "renewed commitment" to work on a political solution to end a war that has driven millions to the brink of famine, Martin Griffiths told the Security Council.

"With this in mind, I intend to reconvene the parties shortly and to do so in Sweden," he said. "I believe we are close to resolving issues to make this happen."

"I have received firm assurances from the leadership of the Yemeni parties ... that they are committed to attending these consultations. I believe they are genuine."

Griffiths plans to travel to the rebel-held capital of Sanaa next week to finalize arrangements and offered to travel with the Huthi delegation to Sweden "if that's what is needed."

The United Nations had announced talks in Geneva in September that never materialized after the Huthis put forward last-minute demands.

The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen has agreed to "logistical arrangements" to pave the way for talks including medical evacuations out of Sanaa, he added.

Griffiths announced he was close to reaching a deal on an exchange of prisoners and detainees, in a further confidence-building measure ahead of planned talks.

"This is a crucial moment for Yemen," he said, warning that a flareup of fighting on the ground could derail the peace effort. No date for the talks was announced.

On Monday, Britain will present a draft resolution to the Security Council to address the crisis in Yemen, Ambassador Karen Pierce said, as diplomatic efforts to end the war gathered pace.

The measure is aimed at shoring up the UN push for peace talks and ensure access for humanitarian aid to millions in Yemen facing famine.

No timing was announced for a vote on the measure, but diplomats said it could be quickly adopted.

- Half the population at risk of famine -

The United States and other western powers have called for a ceasefire and talks on ending the war, which has unleashed the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

Pressure to end the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen has grown following the killing by Saudi agents of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which sparked global outrage.

Back from a visit to Yemen, the head of the UN World Food Programme warned that the country faces a full-blown famine in about six months because of the economic collapse from the war.

"What I have seen in Yemen this week is the stuff of nightmares, of horror, of deprivation, of misery," David Beasley told the council. "Children are already dying."

Eight million people are affected by severe food shortages, according to UN officials, who warn that up to 14 million -- or half of Yemen's population -- are at risk of famine.

"This war must end soon and it won't end on the battlefield," US Deputy Ambassador Jonathan Cohen told the council, renewing a US call for a cessation of hostilities and talks.

The Saudi-led coalition has been waging a war in Yemen since March 2015 to push back the Iran-backed Huthis and restore to power Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, whose government is recognized by the United Nations.

As pressure mounted on the warring sides, Yemeni pro-government forces have suspended an offensive on the rebel-held port of Hodeida, a major entry point for humanitarian aid and vital goods to Yemen.

The UN envoy said he will travel to Hodeida next week to discuss plans for the United Nations to take over control of the Red Sea port and oversee the arrival of aid deliveries and supplies.

This would address concerns from the coalition that the weapons are being smuggled into Yemen for the Huthis through the port.