The U.N. envoy for Yemen on Thursday invited the warring parties to talks in September aimed at ending the three-year conflict, saying the pace of fighting has increased and "the Red Sea is now a theater of war."
Martin Griffiths told the Security Council that military experts say the rebel-held Red Sea port of Hodeida "has become the center of gravity of the war" — and avoiding a battle for the port and the city "has a better chance of being resolved within a comprehensive political settlement."
He said the time is long past to resume the political process, and after consulting the internationally recognized government and Houthi Shiite rebels he plans to invite them for consultations in Geneva on Sept. 6, including to discuss a framework for peace negotiations.
The Yemen conflict was sparked by the Houthi takeover of Yemen's capital Sanaa in 2014, which routed the internationally recognized government. A Saudi-led coalition allied with the government has been at war with the Houthis since 2015.
More than 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen's civil war, which has displaced 2 million people and helped spawn a cholera epidemic. The conflict has created the world's worst humanitarian crisis with more than 22 million people — 75 percent of the population — needing humanitarian aid, including 8.4 million who don't know where their next meal will come from, according to the United Nations.
Griffiths has been leading efforts to prevent a full-scale coalition assault on Hodeida, which is responsible for more than 70 percent of imports to Yemen and is a vital lifeline for a country already teetering on the brink of famine.
U.N. director of humanitarian operations John Ging told the council the conflict in Hodeida "has escalated significantly," saying violence has forced more than 340,000 people from their homes across Hodeida governorate since June 1.
In the latest escalation, he pointed to reports that the coalition conducted airstrikes Thursday around the entrance to one of the few functioning hospitals and an adjacent fish market in Hodeida city, which Yemeni medical officials said killed at least 28 people and wounded at least 70.
Ging said the ports of Hodeida and Saleef remain open and operational. But he warned that "there is no 'contingency plan' that can effectively protect civilians from dire humanitarian consequences if conflict in Hodeida escalates, as the capacity of international organizations and their response would quickly be overwhelmed."
Griffiths said the U.N. is still trying to avoid a battle for Hodeida.
While the gap between the Houthis and the coalition has been narrowed considerably, he said, "I am concerned that Hodeida could be a flashpoint."
"My concern is to avoid any action with dire humanitarian consequences, and ... those which may undermine the resumption of the political process in September," he said.
Griffiths called on the parties "to create a conducive environment to allow for this the happen."
He called on the Security Council to urge the coalition and the Houthis "to resolve this conflict through negotiation rather than through military means," to support his efforts to start talks in September, to support de-escalation in Hodeidah "and to keep the Red Sea out of the conflict."
U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley gave strong backing to Griffiths' efforts to bring both sides together in Geneva, saying "in preparation, the parties should act with restraint and avoid military actions that could escalate tensions and undermine talks."
Hodeida "is critical for the survival of the Yemeni people," she said. "There simply is no alternative when it comes to getting aid and imports of food and fuel into the country."
Haley said Griffiths is offering the parties "a different way forward," and she warned that "if negotiations fail, the consequences will be severe."
Britain's U.N. Ambassador Karen Pierce, the current council president, said after the meeting that "there was very strong support" for Griffiths and "were united in his efforts to get the parties to Geneva."
On a positive note, Griffiths said he was "greatly encouraged by the common desire of the parties to have prisoners of war released," adding "I want to see this moving forward before we meet in Geneva."