The UN special envoy to Yemen has said that he is looking forward to “announcing the reopening of Sanaa airport next week” to commercial access two years after the devastating war forced its closure.
In an exclusive interview, Martin Griffiths told Al Jazeera late on Thursday he was also “working on resuming Yemen talks [between the warring sides] within weeks in Europe”.
UN-brokered talks between the Houthi rebels and exiled Yemeni government, which is militarily backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, was stalled earlier this month after the Shia rebels could not make it to the venue in the Swiss city of Geneva.
“I don’t think we can allow it to be delayed until over the horizon because the problem with that is that people lose the narrative of peace and once you lose the opportunity to talk about the settlement, the narrative of war becomes dominant,” he said. “That’s what we must try to get away from.”
He also said he wanted to make announcements “about how we can get prisoners released, [from] both sides”.
“We made a lot of progress since Geneva and I want to work with the central bank of Yemen and their counterparts in Sanaa on payment of salaries which is crucial, by the way, for the humanitarian issues,” he said.
The World Food Programme (WFP) said on Thursday there “very well could be” famine in remote areas of Yemen, underscoring the bleak humanitarian situation in the country.
The UN food agency has warned that Yemen, the poorest nation in the Middle East, is on the brink of a full-blown famine, with 18 million of its 29 million population food insecure.
At the Geneva peace talks aimed at ending the three-year war, only representatives of the exiled Yemeni government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi turned up, as the Houthis insisted their plane to Geneva be allowed to evacuate dozens of injured people to neighbouring Oman.
Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith, reporting from neighbouring Djibouti, said the reopening of the Sanaa airport – the country’s main international airport – was one of UN’s priorities because of the need for evacuations.
“There are thousands and thousands of people who need life-saving medical treatment overseas. Yemen’s health ministry estimates that between 25,000 and 30,000 people a day are dying because they cannot leave the country via Sanaa airport,” he said.
Even as Griffiths pushes for peace talks, Yemen’s exiled government says it will not cooperate with the UN human rights mission, which has been investigating into suspected war crimes during more than three years of conflict.
It accused the UN of bias, saying the investigators have turned a blind eye to violations by Houthi rebels.
Last month, in a report the panel accused both government forces and Houthi rebels of violations but said that coalition air strikes had caused “most of the documented civilian casualties” and voiced “serious concerns about the targeting process”.