181208 sweden talks
Swedish Foreign minister Margot Wallstrom, U.N. envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths and delegates attend the opening press conference on U.N.-sponsored peace talks for Yemen at Johannesberg castle, Stockholm, Sweden. Image Credit: Reuters

Cairo: A standoff over Yemen’s coastal city of Hodeida Saturday cast a shadow over the third day of UN-sponsored talks in Sweden aimed at ending the country’s devastating war of more than three years.

Hodeida in west Yemen has been under the control of the Iran-allied Al Houthi militia since October 2014, a month after they toppled the internationally recognised government and seized the capital Sana’a.

Representatives of the Saudi-backed government at the current talks near Stockholm called on Al Houthis to peacefully withdraw from Hodeida and its crucial port or face a military action, according to Al Arabiya.

Yemen’s foreign minister Khaid Al Yamani on Saturday said Hodeida must be handed over to the government.

Rebel chief delegate Mohammad Abdul Salam told Reuters Hodeida should be declared a “neutral zone”.

Weeks before the Sweden talks, government forces, supported by an Arab military alliance, pushed deep into Hodeida and later halted the offensive in a gesture of support for UN efforts to restart Yemen’s long-stalled peacemaking.

Most imports and humanitarian aid to Yemen goes through the Hodeida port.

Abdul Salam also told Reuters a political solution to Yemen’s war should include a transitional period with a precise time-frame.

He added his group is open to a UN role in operating Sana’a airport, which is under militia control.

The government has offered to re-open the airport to commercial flights, but demanded that they should be limited to domestic flights, given concerns that Al Houthis may use the airport to smuggle weapons from their Iranian patrons.

“Until now, Al Houthis have not responded to our conditions for opening Sana’a airport,” Hamza Al Kamali, a member of the government team, told Al Arabiya. “Consultations can fail if Al Houthi delegation continues to deviate from the agenda,” he warned.

Aden to be main airport

Meanwhile, Al Yamani said the government-controlled city of Aden will be home to the country’s main airport. “We are ready to reopen Sana’a international airport today... but we have a vision that Aden will be the sovereign airport of Yemen.”

The Al Houthi delegation said talks have been divided into five main sections, including discussions on a political framework and the opening of Sana’a airport for aid, AP reported.

The talks, the first between Yemen’s warring sides in more than two years, started Thursday with an agreement on prisoner swap, increasing hopes that the indirect negotiations could halt the conflict that has pushed the country to the brink of starvation.

Over the past three days, UN envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths has been holding separate meetings with government and rebel delegates to iron out differences.

In recent months, there have been increasing international calls for both sides to lay down arms and discuss peace.