December 11, 2015 / 6:59 PM / in 2 years

World powers step up pressure on Saudis over Yemen conflict

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Frustrated at a worsening humanitarian crisis and rising civilian death toll in Yemen, Western nations are quietly increasing pressure on Saudi Arabia to seek a political deal to end the nearly nine-month conflict, U.N. diplomats said.

People gather at the site of a Saudi-led air strike in Yemen's capital Sanaa September 21, 2015. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

While much of that pressure has been applied through discreet diplomacy, they said, the United States will shine a global spotlight on the conflict when it chairs a public United Nations Security Council meeting on Yemen on Dec. 22.

It will be the first open council session on Yemen since Saudi Arabia led an Arab military intervention in March to try to restore President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government and fend off what it sees as creeping Iranian influence. The Saudis say rival Iran has long supported Houthi rebels in Yemen.

“We expect the Saudis will hear some honest criticism when the council meets,” one senior Security Council diplomat said on condition of anonymity. “It’s long overdue.”

U.N.-sponsored peace talks are due to begin on Tuesday with the aim of securing an agreement on a new government, which Western diplomats say would have to include Houthis.

The United Nations says at least 5,800 people, nearly half of them civilians, have been killed since the Saudi-led alliance launched air strikes in March against the Houthis and their allies. More than 21 million people in Yemen require some kind of humanitarian assistance to survive - about 80 percent of the population - making it one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.

New York-based Human Rights Watch has accused the Saudi-led coalition of failing to investigate killings of hundreds of civilians in Yemen. It also said Washington should look into violations of the laws of war in the conflict in which it has supported the Saudis, a key U.S. arms purchaser.

Last month the U.S. State Department approved the sale of $1.29 billion in smart bombs to Saudi Arabia to help replenish supplies.

“I am sensing a great deal of concern about Saudi Arabia from a large number of countries in the council and really people wanting to say, ‘enough already, we need to focus on getting this (peace) process moving’,” said another senior Security Council diplomat, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

On Monday, Hadi wrote to U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to tell him that he asked the coalition to begin a seven-day renewable ceasefire on Tuesday to coincide with the start of the peace talks.

“We’re sort of ratcheting up the messaging privately to Riyadh that they must translate their military superiority into a political process rather than carrying on to seek complete military victory,” said a third senior council diplomat.

Western diplomats said they hope the peace talks and ceasefire appeal are a sign the Saudis now want a political solution that will end the conflict. But they caution that previous ceasefires fell apart.

The Saudi U.N. mission did not respond to a request for comment. Riyadh says it backs a peaceful settlement and the Gulf Cooperation Council on Thursday announced plans to hold an international conference on reconstruction in Yemen after a peace deal is reached.

The United Nations has led public criticism of the Saudi-led coalition over the humanitarian crisis and mounting civilian death toll. Last week Ban slammed the coalition for again striking a clinic run by the aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

Public criticism from the United States and other Western powers has been scarce. Washington, however, is becoming more vocal.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said on Dec. 1 that the United States has “encouraged the coalition to be extremely discerning and to make every effort to ensure that anything that they are doing in Yemen is in compliance with international humanitarian law.”

Additional reporting by Sami Aboudi in Dubai; Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Tom Brown

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