US defence chief demands Yemen ceasefire; peace talks in 30 days
Top American officials called for a ceasefire in Yemen and demanded warring parties immediately come to the negotiating table.
The comments came as the Saudi-Emirati-led military coalition deployed more than 10,000 new troops towards a vital rebel-held port city in the run-up to a new assault.
James Mattis, the Pentagon chief, said the US had been watching the conflict “for long enough”, adding he believes Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – who are in a US-backed coalition fighting Houthi rebels – are ready for talks.
“We have got to move toward a peace effort here, and we can’t say we are going to do it sometime in the future,” Mattis said at the US Institute of Peace in Washington.
“We need to be doing this in the next 30 days.”
‘Come to a solution’
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later called on the Saudi-Emirati coalition to stop air attacks in populated areas in Yemen. Pompeo said the “time is now for the cessation of hostilities” in the war-plagued country.
Mattis said the United States is calling for all factions to meet United Nations Special Envoy Martin Griffiths in Sweden in November and “come to a solution”.
Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened in the conflict between embattled Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, whose government is recognised by the United Nations, and the Houthis in 2015.
At least 10,000 people – a figure that hasn’t been updated in years and is likely significantly higher – have since been killed and the country that now stands at the brink of famine that threatens an estimated 13 million.
The UN says Yemen could become the worst humanitarian catastrophe the world has seen in 100 years.
US Congress ‘provoked’
Kevin Martin, president of the grassroots Peace Action group, said the people of Yemen need peace right now and even 30 days to halt fighting is too long.
“I think the Trump administration is trying to get out ahead of a stampede. Congress, public opinion and the media have all turned very much against this war,” Martin told Al Jazeera from Washington, DC.
He said international pressure is also mounting on the Saudis, which could force them to heed US demands to end the war in Yemen.
“Unfortunately it’s taken the school bus bombing tragedy of a few months ago, and then the horrible murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Those are awful and it shouldn’t have taken anything like that, but it does seem to have provoked more people in Congress to speak out against this,” said Martin.
US-Saudi ties have cooled in recent weeks after Khashoggi’s killing, which has also tarnished the image of powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
‘Killing innocent people’
The United States has faced fierce international criticism for its role in supporting the Saudi-led coalition, especially after a series of air attacks killed scores of civilians.
Mattis said US support is based primarily on teaching the Saudi air force to improve targeting and to not drop bombs when there is any doubt about what they might hit.
“Our goal right now is to achieve a level of capability by those forces fighting against the Houthis that they are not killing innocent people,” he said.
“The longer-term solution – and by longer term I mean 30 days from now – we want to see everybody around a peace table based on a ceasefire, based on a pullback [of Houthis] from the border and then based on a ceasing dropping of bombs that will permit the special envoy Martin Griffiths … to get them together in Sweden and end this war. That is the only way we are going to really solve this.”
On Thursday, Qatar welcomed the US call for a ceasefire, urging the international community to “take all necessary measures to address the grave humanitarian situation and insure humanitarian access” to all of Yemen.
Last month, UN-led peace talks failed to take off after Houthi rebels refused to fly to Geneva over what they said was the UN’s failure to guarantee a safe return to the capital Sanaa, which the group has controlled since 2014.
The coalition deployed its 10,000 reinforcements to the Red Sea coast in the face of the new offensive on Hodeidah “within days”, a military official told AFP news agency.
He said they would also “secure areas liberated” from the Houthi rebels and forces from Sudan, part of the coalition, had moved into “secure” areas around the city.
Houthi rebels have for the past 10 days been stationing fighters on rooftops of buildings in Hodeidah city, government military officials said.