Yemen government says ready for peace talks

The Yemeni government said it welcomed "all efforts to restore peace" after the UN called for the warring parties to enter negotiations.

"Yemen is ready to immediately launch talks on the process of confidence-building, primarily the release of all detainees and prisoners, as well as those who have been abducted or subject to enforced disappearance," the government said in a statement carried by the state-run Saba news agency.

That came after a string of comments by key US officials and by the UN's envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths, who called Wednesday for warring parties to come to the table "within a month".

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week called for an end to the Yemen war, including air strikes, in an implicit acknowledgement that a Saudi-led coalition was involved in the bombing of civilians.

Washington backs the coalition, which is fighting alongside Yemen's government against the Iran-backed Huthi rebels.

But Saudi Arabia's regional role has come under scrutiny after the killing in its Istanbul consulate last month of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a former royal court insider-turned-critic who wrote columns for the Washington Post.

'People are already dying'

Yemen's war has been particularly devastating for the country's children, over seven million of whom now face food insecurity, according to the UN children's agency.

"Today, 1.8 million children under the age of five are facing acute malnutrition, and 400,000 are affected by severe acute malnutrition," said Geert Cappelaere, regional director of UNICEF.

"In the last couple of years, we see the number of severely acute malnourished children stabilising," he told AFP late on Wednesday.

But "ending the war is not enough," he added.

"The war is exacerbating the situation that was already bad before because of years of underdevelopment" in the Arab world's poorest nation, Cappelaere said.

According to aid organisation CARE International, food security experts are determining whether famine should be declared in Yemen.

"A declaration of famine would mean that the international community has already failed the people of Yemen," said Jolien Veldwijk, assistant country director for CARE Yemen.

"Two of the thresholds needed to declare a famine -- death rates and acute malnutrition rates -– are lagging indicators, which means that by the time these thresholds are met, people are already dying," she said.

UNICEF's Cappelaere said that over 6,000 children had either been killed or sustained serious injuries since 2015.

"These are the numbers we have been able to verify, but we can safely assume that the number is higher, much higher," he said.

Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened in the war in 2015 to bolster Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi after the Iran-backed rebels took over the capital Sanaa.

According to the World Health Organization, nearly 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

In September, a previous round of UN-led peace talks collapsed after the Huthis refused to travel to Geneva, accusing the world body of failing to guarantee their delegation's return to Sanaa or secure the evacuation of wounded rebels to Oman.

Previous talks broke down in 2016, when 108 days of negotiations in Kuwait failed to yield a deal and left rebel delegates stranded in Oman for three months.

A UN panel of experts has accused both the Huthis and the Saudi-led coalition of acts that could amount to war crimes.

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