Taliban, U.S. envoy in Pakistan to review broken peace talks

By Asif Shahzad and Charlotte Greenfield

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Afghan Taliban officials were due in Islamabad on Wednesday to discuss the possibility of reviving talks for a political settlement in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s foreign ministry and the insurgent group said.

The high-profile Taliban delegation was arriving as the top U.S. diplomat involved in talks with the militants, Zalmay Khalilzad, also met government officials in Islamabad.

It was not clear if the Taliban would meet Khalilzad, though one senior Pakistani government official said that might happen.

The Taliban delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the group’s founders, was due to discuss “important issues” with Pakistani officials, spokesman Suhail Shaheen said.

The visit, the latest stop on a tour of regional powers including Russia, China and Iran by Taliban officials, comes after efforts by the militants and the United States to reach a deal allowing for the withdrawal of U.S.-led foreign forces broke down last month.

“The visit would provide the opportunity to review the progress made under U.S.-Taliban peace talks so far, and discuss the possibilities of resuming the paused political settlement process in Afghanistan,” Pakistan’s foreign ministry said in a statement. It said a meeting between the insurgents and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi was being finalized.

Khalilzad, U.S. President Donald Trump’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, has been meeting Pakistani officials in Islamabad following discussions between Trump and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in the United States.

“These consultations follow discussions held between the United States and Pakistan during the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week,” said a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad via email.

The spokesman did not say if Khalilzad was still in Pakistan on Wednesday or if he planned to meet the Taliban officials. A top Pakistan government official told Reuters that the Taliban would likely meet Khan, and that, “we’re trying that we will convince the Taliban that the delegation also meets Zalmay Khalilzad”.

The official said the meetings would focus on attempting to convince the Taliban to include the Afghan government in the peace talks. The insurgents have previously refused to negotiate with what they call an illegitimate “puppet” regime in Kabul.

Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, said on Twitter that the Afghan government should be involved in any peace process.

“No progress will be imminent if a peace process is not owned and led by the Afghan government,” he said.

PROGRESS ON PEACE?

The United States has long considered Pakistani cooperation crucial to efforts to end the war in Afghanistan.

Trump last month halted the talks with the Taliban, aimed at striking a deal allowing U.S. and other foreign troops to withdraw in exchange for Taliban security guarantees, following the death of a U.S. solder and 11 others in a Taliban bomb attack in Kabul.

The Taliban delegation would inform Pakistan’s leadership of the factors that derailed the talks, said a Taliban official who declined to be identified. The Taliban also planned to follow up on Khan’s recent comment that he would try to convince Trump to resume the talks, the Taliban official said.

Baradar, the head of the delegation, was making his first known visit to Pakistan since he was released from a Pakistani jail a year ago.

Previously the coordinator of the group’s military operations in southern Afghanistan, he was arrested in 2010 by a team from Pakistani and U.S. intelligence agencies.

The U.S. and Taliban said last month, shortly before talks broke off, that they were close to reaching a deal, despite concerns among some U.S. security officials and within the Afghan government that a U.S. withdrawal could plunge the country into even more conflict and open the way for a resurgence of Islamist militant factions.

(Reporting by Jibran Ahmed in Peshawar, Pakistan and Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Orooj Hakimi in Kabul and Charlotte Greenfield and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad; Writing by Rod Nickel in Kabul and Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad; Editing by Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson)

Afghan president renews calls for peace, demands ceasefire

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani speaks during an event with Afghan security forces in Kabul, Afghanistan September 9, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

By Hamid Shalizi and Hameed Farzad

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made a renewed call for peace on Monday but insisted the Taliban must observe a ceasefire, as he sought to regain a hold on the peace process following the surprise collapse of talks between the United States and the militants.

Ghani’s comments, to a meeting of military leaders in Kabul, came amid uncertainty over the future of efforts to end 18 years of war in Afghanistan after U.S. President Donald Trump’s abrupt cancellation of talks with the Taliban at the weekend.

“We are ready for peace talks but if the Taliban think they can scare us, look at these warriors,” Ghani said, declaring that peace could not be unconditional as he repeated demands for a ceasefire that the Taliban have so far refused.

“Peace without a ceasefire is impossible.”

Trump’s refusal to meet the Taliban has left it unclear whether talks can be revived or whether the two sides, locked in a broad stalemate, will continue fighting.

The insurgents’ determination to step up both attacks on provincial centers and suicide bombings even as peace talks were taking place was a key factor in pushing Trump to cancel talks days after a U.S. soldier was killed in the capital Kabul.

The end of the talks has fueled fears of a further increase in violence across Afghanistan, with heightened security warnings in the Kabul and other centers ahead of a presidential election scheduled for Sept. 28.

The talks, which had been secret until Trump unexpectedly announced their cancellation on Saturday, would have brought the U.S. president face-to-face with senior Taliban leaders at the presidential compound in Camp David, Maryland.

WITHDRAWAL TIMETABLE

Ghani, who was sidelined from months of negotiations between U.S. officials and Taliban representatives, had been deeply suspicious of the talks, which sought to agree a timetable for a withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops.

A draft accord agreed last week would have seen some 5,000 U.S. troops withdrawn over coming months in exchange for guarantees that Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militant attacks on the United States or its allies.

Afghan officials had argued for months that it was a mistake for the United States to agree a deal on troop withdrawals separately from a broader peace accord.

The collapse of the talks appears to have strengthened Ghani’s position, in part by removing lingering doubts over whether the twice-delayed election – in which he is favorite to win a second five-year term – would go ahead.

Until Saturday’s surprise announcement by Trump, many politicians and Western diplomats had argued that peace talks should take priority over an election seen as a potential obstacle to a deal with the Taliban.

Now officials say there is no excuse for the vote not to be held, with election authorities promising that the problems that dogged parliamentary elections last year will not be repeated.

Ghani, a former World Bank official who came to power after a bitterly disputed election in 2014, has kept up campaigning even as the talks went on, adapting to the worsening security situation by holding “virtual rallies” that address supporters in various provinces through a video link-up.

“Afghanistan is now at a critical juncture because of the election and the peace process,” he said.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Trump says he canceled peace talks with Taliban over Kabul attack

U.S. President Donald Trump departs after presenting NBA Hall of Fame player Jerry West with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the Oval office of the White House in Washington, U.S., September 5, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Phil Stewart and Jason Lange

WASHINGTON/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday said he canceled peace talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders after the insurgent group claimed responsibility last week for an attack in Kabul that killed an American soldier and 11 other people.

Trump said he had planned a secret meeting with the Taliban’s “major leaders” on Sunday at a presidential compound in Camp David, Maryland. Trump said he also planned to meet with Afghanistan’s president.

But Trump said he immediately called the talks off when the insurgents said they were behind the attack.

“If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway,” Trump said on Twitter.

The surprise announcement left in doubt the future of the draft accord worked out last week by Zalmay Khalilzad, the special U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan, for a drawdown of thousands of U.S. troops over the coming months.

There was no immediate reaction from the Taliban but the decision appeared to catch them by surprise.

Just hours before Trump’s tweet, a senior Taliban leader privy to talks in Doha with U.S. officials including Khalilzad and Taliban chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, said an agreement to sign the deal appeared close.

Taliban fighters, who now control more territory than at any time since 2001, launched fresh assaults on the northern cities of Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri over the past week and carried out two major suicide bombings in the capital Kabul.

One of the blasts, a suicide attack in Kabul on Thursday, took the life of U.S. Army Sergeant 1st Class Elis A. Barreto Ortiz, 34, from Puerto Rico, bringing the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan this year to 16.

A spike in attacks by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan has been “particularly unhelpful” to peace efforts there, a senior U.S. military commander said on Saturday as he visited neighboring Pakistan, where many Taliban militants are based.

FILE PHOTO: Angry Afghan protesters burn tires and shout slogans at the site of a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Angry Afghan protesters burn tires and shout slogans at the site of a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani/File Photo

U.S. Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, who oversees American troops in the region, declined to comment on the diplomatic negotiations themselves but criticized a wave of Taliban violence that has cast a long shadow over the deal.

“It is particularly unhelpful at this moment in Afghanistan’s history for the Taliban to ramp up violence,” McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, told reporters traveling with him.

McKenzie said for the peace process to move forward, “all parties should be committed to an eventual political settlement” which, in turn, should result in reduced violence.

“If we can’t get that going in, then it is difficult to see the parties are going to be able to carry out the terms of the agreement, whatever they might or might not be,” McKenzie said.

Under the draft accord, some 5,000 U.S. troops would be withdrawn over the coming months in exchange for guarantees Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militant attacks on the United States and its allies.

However, a full peace agreement to end more than 18 years of war would depend on subsequent “intra Afghan” talks involving officials and civil society leaders as well as further agreement on issues including the remainder of the roughly 14,000-strong U.S. forces as well as thousands of other NATO troops.

The Taliban have rejected calls for a ceasefire and instead stepped up operations across the country and it remains unclear whether they will accept direct negotiations with the Afghan government, which they consider an illegitimate “puppet” regime.

NEW CIVIL WAR?

For Afghans, the Taliban’s recent escalation of attacks has underscored fears it may be impossible to reach a stable settlement following any complete U.S. withdrawal.

Ghani dismissed the talks as “meaningless” following Thursday’s suicide bombing and his spokesman said an official reaction to Trump’s announcement would come soon.

The Taliban’s strategy appears to be based on the assumption that battlefield success would strengthen their hand in future negotiations with Afghan officials. Some of their field commanders have also said they are determined not to surrender gains when they are close to victory, suggesting the leadership is under internal pressure not to concede a ceasefire.

But that has risked undermining acceptance of the deal by Washington and its NATO allies as well as by Kabul.

“The Taliban’s leaders will have to show they can stop the attacks, if not, then what is the point of holding long negotiations with Baradar?” said one Western diplomat in Kabul.

Even within the Taliban ranks, there appears to be doubt about how any agreement would take effect, given growing opposition to the deal from the government side.

“Don’t ask me how to implement the peace accord,” the Taliban official said.

Memories of the bloody 1990s conflict between the Taliban and rival militia groups are vivid. Former U.S. envoys who worked on Afghanistan warned last week that “total civil war” with “catastrophic” consequences for U.S. national security was possible.

Many have worried about a fracture along ethnic and regional lines, with Persian-speaking Tajiks and Hazaras from the north and west against southern and eastern Pashtuns, the group that have supplied most of Afghanistan’s rulers and where the Taliban draw most support.

Some Taliban are based in neighboring Pakistan, where McKenzie held talks on Saturday with a top Pakistani general. More talks are scheduled for Sunday.

McKenzie said he did not know whether any of the planning for the recent wave of attacks in Afghanistan came from Pakistan-based militants.

But McKenzie commended Pakistan for supporting the peace efforts in Afghanistan, in the latest sign of an improvement in long-fraught relations between Washington and Islamabad.

“A lot of Pakistanis have been killed by militant attacks inside Pakistan. I think Pakistan sees the benefits of a stable Afghanistan,” McKenzie said.

(Additional by Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Rupam Jain and James Mackenzie in Kabul; Editing by Marguerita Choy, Chris Reese and Michael Perry)

Peace deal in Afghanistan closer than ever before, says NATO chief

FILE PHOTO: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg addresses a news conference on the alliance's annual report at NATO's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium March 14, 2019. REUTERS/Yves Herman

WELLINGTON (Reuters) – NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Tuesday that there was a real chance for peace in Afghanistan as U.S.-Taliban peace talks continue in Qatar.

“We now see a real chance for peace in Afghanistan, we are closer to a peace deal than ever before,” Stoltenberg told reporters at a news conference in Wellington, New Zealand.

(Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield; writing by Praveen Menon; editing by Grant McCool)

Taliban team at Afghan peace talks in Qatar to include women: spokesman

FILE PHOTO: Afghan women line up at a polling station during parliamentary elections in Kabul, Afghanistan October 20, 2018.REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail/File Photo

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) – Women will be included for the first time in the Taliban delegation to peace talks in Qatar this month, the movement’s main spokesman said on Monday, ahead of the latest round of meetings aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan.

For a group notorious for its strictly conservative attitude to women’s rights, the move represents a step towards addressing demands that women be included in the talks, intended to lay the foundations for a future peace settlement.

The April 19-21 meeting in Doha will be between the Taliban and a delegation comprising prominent Afghans, including opposition politicians and civil society activists. It follows similar talks between the two sides in Moscow in February.

The non-Taliban delegation that was in Moscow could be expanded next week to include some government officials, but acting in their private capacities as the insurgents have refused to hold formal talks with Kabul.

“There will be women among Taliban delegation members in the Doha, Qatar meeting,” Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s main spokesman, said by telephone.

He did not name the women, but added, “These women have no family relationship with the senior members of the Taliban, they are normal Afghans, from inside and outside the country, who have been supporters and part of the struggle of the Islamic Emirate”.

In a tweet, he specified that the women would only join the discussions with Afghan civil society and political representatives, not in the main negotiations with American officials, led by U.S. special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.

Khalilzad has not yet set dates for the next round of talks with the Taliban, a State Department spokesperson said.

“We do not have new U.S. talks with the Taliban to announce at this time. Before additional talks, we look forward to knowing the outcome of the intra-Afghan dialogue,” the spokesperson said in an email.

Khalilzad, a veteran Afghan-born U.S. diplomat, is working to secure an accord with the Taliban on a U.S. troop pullout, measures to prevent al Qaeda and other extremists from using Afghanistan as a springboard for attacks, a ceasefire and inter-Afghan talks that include the government on the country’s political future.

The Taliban have rejected formal talks with the government, which they dismiss as a “puppet” regime controlled by the United States.

While Afghanistan remains a deeply conservative country, especially in rural areas, there have been major advances in women’s rights since the U.S-led campaign of 2001 that toppled the Taliban government. Many women fear that if the group regains some power, many of these gains could be erased.

The movement gained worldwide notoriety when it came to power in the 1990s by forcing women to wear full facial covering and imposing severe restrictions including banning girls from school and forbidding women from working outside the home.

However, Taliban spokesmen say the group has changed and it encourages girls’ education and other women’s rights within an Islamic Sharia system.

Civil society groups, the Western-backed government and Afghanistan’s international partners have pressed for women to take part in the talks and news of the Taliban delegation was welcomed. Fawzia Koofi, a former member of parliament who took part in the meetings in Moscow, said the presence of women in the Taliban team was a “good step”.

“Only women can feel the pain and miseries that Afghan women have suffered. The presence of women among the Taliban negotiators shows that the Taliban’s ideology has changed.”

Jeanne Shaheen, a member of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, who has been pressing for women to play a role in the peace talks said the process should be inclusive.

Future international support for Afghanistan could be affected by whether women’s rights were properly respected in any settlement, she said.

“There are certain levers that we have, that the Taliban are interested in,” she told reporters in Kabul, where she was visiting as part of a Congressional delegation. “There is going to be an interest in economic support after the conflict ends.”

“I think if the Taliban has any interest in getting international support … it would be in their interest to recognize the importance of including women and including human rights as part of any settlement that happens.”

(Additional reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Frances Kerry, Toby Chopra and Neil Fullick)

Houthi drones kill several at Yemeni military parade

Soldiers inspect the scene of a Houthi drone attack at Yemeni government military parade in al-Anad air base, Lahaj province, Yemen January 10, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

ADEN (Reuters) – Drones belonging to the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement on Thursday attacked a Yemeni government military parade in the southern province of Lahaj, killing several people, Saudi and Houthi media reported.

The attack comes as the United Nations tries to get peace talks going between the Houthis who control northern Yemen and the Saudi-backed government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi by overseeing a limited ceasefire in the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah.

The parade was taking place inside a military base in al-Anad district when an explosion rocked the area, eyewitnesses said. They said high-ranking officers including Yemen’s deputy chief of staff had been wounded.

Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV said five people had been killed and several injured. Houthi Al-Masirah TV said the attack had been aimed at “the leadership of the invaders”.

A military source said the focus of the attack had been the podium where senior officers were sitting.

It was unclear if officers were present from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, leaders of a Sunni Muslim Arab coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015 to try to restore Hadi’s government, which had been ousted from the capital Sanaa in 2014.

The Houthis said in November they were halting drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their Yemeni allies, but tensions have risen recently over how to implement the U.N.-sponsored deal in Hodeidah.

The Houthis and the Saudi-backed government agreed to stop fighting and withdraw forces at peace talks in Sweden in December following months of diplomacy and Western pressure.

The ceasefire only applies to Hodeidah province but the British ambassador to Yemen, Michael Aron, tweeted on Thursday that an escalation anywhere in Yemen “goes against the spirit of the Stockholm agreement”.

Implementation of the deal, the first breakthrough in peace efforts in five years, has stalled as the sides disagree on who will control the city of Hodeidah after the withdrawal.

Yemen descended into war after pro-democracy unrest forced late former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. Hadi was elected to head a transitional government but after the Houthis took Sanaa he went into exile in Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis deny getting any help from Iran and say they are waging a revolution against corruption.

(Reporting By Mohammed Ghobari and Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Afghan Taliban call off peace talks with U.S. over ‘agenda differences’

FILE PHOTO: Taliban walk as they celebrate ceasefire in Ghanikhel district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan June 16, 2018.REUTERS/Parwiz

By Jibran Ahmad

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – The Afghan Taliban said on Tuesday they had called off peace talks with U.S. officials in Qatar this week due to an “agenda disagreement”, especially over the involvement of Afghan officials as well as a possible ceasefire and prisoner exchange.

Two days of peace talks had been set to start on Wednesday, Taliban officials told Reuters earlier, but the hardline Islamic militant group had refused to allow “puppet” Afghan officials to join.

The war in Afghanistan is America’s longest overseas military intervention. It has cost Washington nearly a trillion dollars and killed tens of thousands of people.

“The U.S. officials insisted that the Taliban should meet the Afghan authorities in Qatar and both sides were in disagreement over declaring a ceasefire in 2019,” a Taliban source told Reuters.

“Both sides have agreed to not meet in Qatar.”

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said earlier the two sides were still working on the technical details and were not clear on the agenda for the talks.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the cancellation.

The talks, which would have been the fourth round with U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, would have involved a U.S. withdrawal, prisoner exchange and the lifting of a ban on movement of Taliban leaders, a Taliban leader had told Reuters.

Taliban sources said that they had demanded U.S. authorities release 25,000 prisoners and they would free 3,000, but that U.S. officials were not keen to discuss the exchange at this stage.

“We would never announce any ceasefire until and unless we achieve major gains on the ground. We have the feeling that Zalmay Khalilzad doesn’t have enough power to make important decisions,” a second Taliban official said.

The Taliban said Khalilzad would visit the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and China to continue the discussion. Khalilzad’s office was not available for comment.

The Taliban have rejected repeated requests from regional powers to allow Afghan officials to take part in the talks, insisting that the United States is their main adversary in the 17-year war.

The insurgents, seeking to reimpose strict Islamic law after their 2001 ouster by U.S.-led troops, called off a meeting with U.S. officials in Saudi Arabia this week because of Riyadh’s insistence on bringing the Western-backed Afghan government to the table.

Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the UAE took part in the last round of talks in December.

Western diplomats based in Kabul said Pakistan’s cooperation in the peace process will be crucial to its success. Independent security analysts and diplomats said the neighboring country’s powerful military has kept close ties with the Afghan Taliban.

U.S. officials have accused Pakistan of providing safe haven to Taliban militants in its border regions and using them as an arm of its foreign policy. Pakistan denies the claim.

The United States, which sent troops to Afghanistan in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington and at the peak of the deployment had more than 100,000 troops in the country, withdrew most of its forces in 2014.

It keeps around 14,000 troops there as part of a NATO-led mission aiding Afghan security forces and hunting militants.

Reports last month about U.S. President Donald Trump’s plans to withdraw thousands of troops from Afghanistan triggered uncertainty in Kabul which depends on the United States and other foreign powers for military support and training.

As peace talks gained momentum a draft agreement drawn up by the influential U.S. think tank RAND Corporation outlining the clauses for a potential peace deal was circulated among Afghan officials and diplomats in Kabul.

The document, reviewed by Reuters, suggests that the United States and NATO withdraw their military missions in phases over an expected period of 18 months. It adds that the United States may continue providing civilian assistance.

(Additonal reporting by James Mackenzie in Islamabad, Hamid Shalizi, Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Rupam Jain in Kabul; Writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Taliban dismiss Afghanistan’s peace talks offer

By Jibran Ahmad

KABUL/PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – The Taliban have rejected Kabul’s offer of talks next month in Saudi Arabia where the militants, fighting to restore strict Islamic law in Afghanistan, will meet U.S. officials to further peace efforts, a Taliban leader said on Sunday.

Representatives from the Taliban, the United States and regional countries met this month in the United Arab Emirates for talks to end the 17-year war in Afghanistan.

But the Taliban have refused to hold formal talks with the Western-backed Afghan government.

“We will meet the U.S. officials in Saudi Arabia in January next year and we will start our talks that remained incomplete in Abu Dhabi,” a member of the Taliban’s decision-making Leadership Council told Reuters. “However, we have made it clear to all the stakeholders that we will not talk to the Afghan government.”

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid also said the leaders of the group would not talk to the Afghan government.

The militants have insisted on first reaching an agreement with the United States, which the group sees as the main force in Afghanistan since U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban government in 2001.

Diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict have intensified after Taliban representatives started meeting U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad this year. Officials from the warring sides have met at least three times to discuss the withdrawal of international forces and a ceasefire in 2019.

But the United States has insisted that any final settlement must be led by the Afghans.

According to data from the NATO-led Resolute Support mission published in November, the government of President Ashraf Ghani has control or influence over 65 percent of the population but only 55.5 percent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, less than at any time since 2001. The Taliban say they control 70 percent of the country.

A close aide to Ghani said the government would keep trying to establish a direct line of diplomatic communication with the Taliban.

“Talks should be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned,” the aide said on condition of anonymity. “It is important that the Taliban acknowledge this fact.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has announced a pullout of American troops from Syria, a decision that prompted the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis, and there have been reports that he is considering a partial pullout from Afghanistan.

(Additional reporting by Rupam Jain in Kabul, Editing by Nick Macfie)

Yemen talks set to start in Sweden after wounded Houthis evacuated

A wounded Houthi fighter, on a wheelchair, holds his passport at Sanaa airport during his evacuation from Yemen, December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

By Mohamed Ghobari and Aziz El Yaakoubi

ADEN/DUBAI (Reuters) – Yemeni Houthi officials are expected to travel to Sweden shortly for talks as early as Wednesday to end the nearly four-year-old war after the Saudi-led coalition allowed the evacuation of some of their wounded for treatment.

Prospects for convening talks have risen as Western allies press Saudi Arabia, leader of the Sunni Muslim alliance battling the Iranian-aligned Houthis, over a war that has killed more than 10,000 people and pushed Yemen to the brink of famine.

U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths arrived in the Houthi-held capital Sanaa on Monday to escort the Houthi delegation, a U.N. source told Reuters. The Saudi-backed government has said it would follow the Houthis to the talks, the first since 2016.

The peace talks may start on Wednesday, two sources familiar with the matter said. Griffiths shuttled between the parties to salvage a previous round that collapsed in September after the Houthis failed to show up.

Western powers, which provide arms and intelligence to the coalition, may now have greater leverage to demand action on Yemen after outrage over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul led to increased scrutiny of the kingdom’s activities in the region.

The U.S. Senate is due to consider this week a resolution to end support for the conflict, seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and its arch-foe in the Middle East, Iran.

A Houthi official told Reuters that their delegation could travel on Monday night or Tuesday morning. In addition to the evacuation of their wounded, the group had asked to travel on a plane not inspected by the Saudi-led coalition.

A Reuters photographer saw the group of 50 wounded fighters entered Sanaa airport early on Monday as the commercial plane hired by the United Nations to take them to Oman for treatment arrived. The aircraft departed later on Monday.

A Houthi official said the group has agreed with Griffiths that 50 companions would also go with the fighters.

The coalition said in a statement it had agreed on the evacuation for “for humanitarian considerations and as part of confidence-building measures” ahead of the talks, which are also due to focus on a transitional governing body.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry said it backed the talks and was ready to help find a political solution, Iranian state TV reported on Monday.

A wounded Houthi fighter walks at Sanaa airport during his evacuation from Yemen December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

A wounded Houthi fighter walks at Sanaa airport during his evacuation from Yemen December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

HODEIDAH CHALLENGE

Analysts said both parties showing up for the talks would be an achievement in itself, even if there are no concrete outcomes as Griffiths tries to overcome deep mistrust on all sides.

“Neither side wishes to be blamed for the dire consequences of the looming famine, which is starting to become a reality,” said Elisabeth Kendall, a senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Oxford University.

“But it remains to be seen whether the political will is really there to make the necessary concessions for peace.”

Some 8.4 million Yemenis are facing starvation, although the United Nations has warned that will probably rise to 14 million. Three-quarters of impoverished Yemen’s population, or 22 million people, require aid.

The Arab alliance intervened in the war in 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi but has bogged down in a military stalemate, despite superior air power, since seizing the southern port of Aden that year.

The Houthis, who are more adept at guerrilla warfare, hold most population centers including Sanaa and the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions that is now the focus of the war.

Griffiths hopes to reach a deal on reopening Sanaa airport and securing a prisoner swap and a ceasefire in Hodeidah as a foundation for a wider ceasefire, which would include a halt to coalition air strikes that have killed thousands of civilians as well as Houthi missile attacks on Saudi cities.

(Additional reporting by Hesham Hajali in CAIRO and Mohammed Ghobari in Aden, Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Toby Chopra; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Saudi-led coalition masses troops near Yemen’s Hodeidah as pressure mounts to end war

FILE PHOTO: Protesters hold up a poster of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi during a protest against the deteriorating economy in Taiz, Yemen, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Anees Mahyoub/File Photo

By Mohammed Ghobari

ADEN (Reuters) – The Saudi-led coalition has massed thousands of troops near Yemen’s main port city of Hodeidah, local military sources said on Wednesday, in a move to pressure Iranian-aligned Houthi insurgents to return to U.N.-sponsored peace talks.

The United States and Britain have called for an end to the 3-1/2-year war that has driven impoverished Yemen to the verge of famine, raising pressure on Saudi Arabia as it faces a global outcry over the murder of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

The military alliance of Sunni Muslim states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has deployed around 30,000 forces south of Houthi-held Hodeidah and near its eastern entrance, pro-coalition Yemeni military sources told Reuters.

“Thousands of Yemeni soldiers trained by the coalition have been sent to the outskirts of Hodeidah in addition to modern weaponry including armored vehicles and tanks…in preparation for a big operation in coming days,” said one source.

Residents told Reuters that the Houthis had also deployed forces in the center of Hodeidah city, at the port and in southern neighborhoods in anticipation of an onslaught.

The coalition and the Houthis have not commented on the military movements.

The U.N. special envoy to Yemen is trying to salvage peace talks that collapsed in September, raising the risk of a renewed assault on the Red Sea city, the country’s main port and a lifeline for millions of Yemenis reliant on humanitarian aid.

Envoy Martin Griffiths welcomed a call by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday for a cessation of hostilities ahead of U.N.-led negotiations scheduled to begin next month.

Britain also endorsed the U.S. call to end the fighting, which has killed more than 10,000 people, according to available U.N. figures, and triggered the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis.

“We remain committed to bring the Yemeni parties to the negotiations table within a month. Dialogue remains the only path to reach an inclusive agreement,” Griffiths said in a statement issued on Wednesday.

“I urge all concerned parties to seize this opportunity to engage constructively with our current efforts to swiftly resume political consultations to agree on a framework for political negotiations, and confidence-building measures,” he said, listing support for the central bank and a prisoner swap.

DIRE SITUATION

The Western-backed Arab alliance intervened in Yemen’s war, widely seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, in 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government.

But after seizing the southern port city of Aden and some towns on the western coast, the alliance has made little gains in a costly war to unseat the Houthis, who hold the most populous parts of Yemen including the capital Sanaa.

The United Nations aid chief told the Security Council earlier this month that half the population of Yemen – some 14 million people – could soon be on the brink of famine.

Aid groups warned of deteriorating conditions in the Arabian Peninsula country.

“The recent increase in military activity in…Hodeidah threatens the security of our life-saving operations,” World Food Programme spokesman Herve Verhoosel said on Wednesday.

He said the WFP has enough cereals to assist 6.4 million of the neediest Yemenis for 2-1/2 months, with the aim to reach 8 million.

Red Cross spokeswoman Sara Alzawqari said that an estimated 3,200 families – some 22,000-28,000 people – were in dire need of basic necessities including food, water and shelter in Hodeidah, many having fled fighting in rural areas.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have repeatedly said that taking control of Hodeidah would force the Houthi movement to the negotiating table by cutting off its main supply line.

But a previous offensive on the heavily-defended city in June failed to accomplish any gains and the coalition halted the fighting to give U.N. peace talks in Geneva a chance.

The talks were abandoned when the Houthi delegation failed to show up. The Houthis accused the coalition of blocking the group’s team from traveling, while the Yemeni government accused the Houthis of trying to sabotage the negotiations.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Mark Heinrich)