British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt on Tuesday said prospects for talks to end Yemen’s devastating war were “more real” after Saudi Arabia confirmed to him its willingness to evacuate 50 wounded Houthi fighters as a confidence-building measure.
The evacuation of Houthi fighters, which Hunt said would involve conditions about who travels with them, was a Houthi condition for peace talks that collapsed in September after the armed group’s delegation failed to show up.
“If this unblocks that, then that makes the prospect of those peace talks happening more real and that will be very important,” Hunt said.
“It’s about confidence-building measures on both sides, but certainly [from] the people I’ve spoken to today, there is a real willingness to engage in those.”
The Western-backed Saudi-Emirati coalition in Yemen resumed air attacks on the main port city of Hodeidah after a lull on Monday as Western allies pressed Riyadh to end a war that has pushed the impoverished country to the verge of starvation.
“Even though there’s been a temporary lull in the fighting … it is a desperate humanitarian situation and so I impressed on everyone the urgency of the situation we’re facing,” Hunt said.
Britain has pushed for new action at the UN Security Council to try to end hostilities in Yemen and find a political solution to the three-year war.
Following meetings in Riyadh with the Saudi king and crown prince – the main proponent of Saudi military intervention in Yemen – the UK minister also said he anticipated “rapid progress” in bringing to justice those responsible for last month’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“I was led to believe that certainly the legal processes are going to be starting very soon indeed and we should hear something about that quite shortly,” Hunt told Reuters news agency.
Hunt’s trip, which included a meeting in the United Arab Emirates with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, comes as Riyadh, already under scrutiny for civilian deaths in Yemen air raids, is facing global criticism and potential sanctions over Khashoggi’s killing inside its Istanbul consulate on October 2.
The United Kingdom is a major arms supplier to Saudi Arabia and opposition politicians and human rights groups have called on the government to cease such sales because of the high civilian death toll in air raids by the coalition in Yemen.
The government has said the arms sales earn Britain billions of pounds and guarantee jobs in the industry, and its response to the Khashoggi killing must bear this in mind.
“I talked very frankly about our concerns about what happened and how important it is for Saudi’s strategic partners to know that this cannot and will not happen again,” said Hunt.
“Due process is in train at the moment in Saudi Arabia, and I was led to believe there will be rapid progress in making sure that people are brought to justice.”
Hunt said accountability was needed for both the people who committed the act and those who ordered it.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says Khashoggi’s murder was ordered at the highest levels of the Saudi government and some US legislators have accused Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto leader, of doing so.
Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday reiterated the UK’s calls for a transparent investigation into the killing.
“As we seek to protect and advance our common security, it is vital that we and our partners in the international community demonstrate our common adherence to the rule of law,” May said. “Those responsible must be held to account.”