Mattis calls for Yemen ceasefire, peace talks within 'next 30 days'

US Secretary of Defence James Mattis said he believes Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who are in a US-backed coalition fighting Shi'ite Houthi rebels, are ready for talks. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP, WASHINGTON POST) - United States Secretary of Defence James Mattis called on Tuesday (Oct 30) for a ceasefire in Yemen and for parties to come to the negotiating table within the next 30 days.

The Pentagon chief said the US had been watching the conflict "for long enough" and said he believes Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who are in a US-backed coalition fighting Shi'ite Houthi rebels, are ready for talks.

"We have got to move towards a peace effort here, and we can't say we are going to do it some time in the future," Mr Mattis said at the US Institute of Peace in Washington.

"We need to be doing this in the next 30 days."

He said the US is calling for all warring parties to meet United Nations special envoy Martin Griffiths in Sweden in November and "come to a solution".

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday (Oct 30) called for an end to all air strikes in Yemen's populated areas conducted by the Saudi-led coalition.

"The time is now for the cessation of hostilities, including missile and UAV (drone) strikes from Houthi-controlled areas into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates," Mr Pompeo said in a statement.

"Subsequently, coalition air strikes must cease in all populated areas in Yemen."

The conflict began more than three years ago, and it started to receive more attention when the killing of a Saudi dissident, Mr Jamal Khashoggi, led to outrage and turned a spotlight on Saudi actions in the region.

Sources said the Trump administration wants to see Saudi Arabia resolve the Qatar crisis and take similar steps towards its widely criticised war in Yemen.

The Yemen conflict - which has pitted the world's biggest oil exporter against Houthi rebels in the poorest Arab nation since March 2015 - has degenerated into a humanitarian disaster, according to the United Nations.

The US has faced criticism as having a responsibility in the conflict because of its military support for Saudi Arabia, including providing intelligence, training and targeting information.

Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened in the conflict between embattled Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, whose government is recognised by the UN, and the Houthis in 2015.

Nearly 10,000 people have since been killed and the country now stands at the brink of famine.

The US has faced fierce international criticism for its role in supporting the Saudi-led coalition, especially after a series of strikes killed scores of civilians.

Mr Mattis said US support is based primarily on teaching the Saudi air force to improve targeting and to not drop bombs when there is any doubt about what they might hit.

"Our goal right now is to achieve a level of capability by those forces fighting against the Houthis that they are not killing innocent people," he said.

"The longer-term solution, and by longer term I mean 30 days from now, we want to see everybody around a peace table based on a ceasefire, based on a pull back (of Houthis) from the border and then based on a ceasing dropping of bombs that will permit the special envoy Martin Griffiths... to get them together in Sweden and end this war. That is the only way we are going to really solve this."

Last month, UN-led peace talks failed to take off after Houthi rebels refused to fly to Geneva over what they said was the UN's failure to guarantee a safe return to the capital Sanaa, which the group has controlled since 2014.

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