UN envoy holds talks with Yemen separatist chief

Al-Zoubeidi, Griffiths meet in Abu Dhabi for talks on UN efforts to revive peace talks in south Yemen.

ABU DHABI - UN envoy Martin Griffiths held talks Thursday with the head of Yemen's southern separatist movement, which has called for a "peaceful uprising" against President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi in the war-torn country.

Aidarous al-Zoubeidi and Griffiths met in Abu Dhabi for talks on "the UN envoy's efforts to revive (peace) talks and the participation of the Southern Transitional Council in future negotiations", his STC movement said in a statement.

The STC, based in the government bastion of Aden and which has a representative branch in Washington, has accused Hadi's government of negligence and corruption.

On Wednesday, it called for a "peaceful, popular uprising" against the Hadi government.

The STC, which calls for the reinstatement of an independent south Yemen, has gained traction in its push for self-rule over the past year.

Allied with army troops trained by the United Arab Emirates, the separatists in January seized control of parts of Aden province.

Last month, UN-led peace talks failed to take off after Shiite Huthi 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.

Griffiths is pushing for another round of talks between the Saudi-backed government and the northern-based Huthi rebels linked to Iran.

Southern Yemen is home to both the Hadi government and separatists, whose alliance against the Huthis has become increasingly fraught. North and south Yemen were independent states until their unification in 1990.

Nearly 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen since 2015, when Saudi Arabia and its allies joined the government's war with the Huthis.

The war has triggered what the UN calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with more than three-quarters of Yemen's population needing aid and 8.4 million people at risk of famine.

Economic priority

Griffiths on Thursday told journalists that the best way to resolve Yemen's humanitarian crisis is to fix the economy so stemming a slide in the riyal currency is the top international priority.

He said the UN is discussing an emergency plan to stem the riyal's fall and restore economic confidence. Yemen is the poorest Arab nation and faces the world's worst humanitarian crisis, exacerbated by a war that begin in 2015.

Three-quarters of its population, or 22 million people, require aid and 8.4 million people are on the brink of starvation.

"There's no doubt in my mind whatsoever that this economic issue is now the overwhelmingly most important priority," envoy Martin Griffiths said.

"Within the UN we're talking about the need for such a master plan ... an immediate set of measures over weeks which the World Bank, IMF, UN agencies, the Gulf obviously, the government of Yemen could come together to discuss," he said.

The riyal has lost more than half its value against the US dollar since the start of the war. Authorities sought to boost liquidity last year by printing money, but it plunged from 250 to the dollar after the first batch of notes was rolled out. It was trading at around 700 on Thursday.

Soaring prices have put some basic commodities out of reach for many Yemenis and the central bank has struggled to pay public-sector salaries on which many depend as foreign exchange reserves dwindle.

Griffiths said that by November the United Nations hopes to resume consultations with the warring sides. The first attempt in three years at talks collapsed a month ago after the Huthis failed to turn up.

The Huthis accused the coalition of blocking their delegation from travelling to Geneva. The government blamed the Huthis for sabotaging the negotiations.

Central bank

Griffiths, who took up his post in February, said he was close to securing a solution in order to avoid more "last minute surprises".

"What I'd like to see happen is within the next couple of weeks maximum we could have resolved those issues so that we can then say, 'OK, we now know the logistical basis that we have, let's go back to the table," he said in the Emirati capital Abu Dhabi.

"I'd like it to happen in November but I'm not predicting at the moment because we've got to get these logistical issues out of the way." He said the talks would probably happen in Europe but declined to confirm a specific location.

The coalition intervened in Yemen's war against the Huthis in 2015 with the aim of restoring the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Saudi Arabia donated $200 million to Yemen's central bank this week to help shore up the riyal, following earlier deposits of nearly $3 billion, but Griffiths said a more comprehensive approach was needed.

"I don't think we can always rely and shouldn't always rely on Saudi generosity to put money into the system," he said.

The central bank has been considered the last bastion of Yemen's financial system, and is effectively running the economy, according to central bank officials, diplomats and Yemeni political sources on both sides of the war.

Hadi's government moved it from Sanaa to Aden in 2016, placing it in the crossfire. The government has accused the Huthis of squandering some $4 billion in reserves on the war effort, but the Huthis say the funds were used to finance imports of food and medicine.

Griffiths said the UN and International Monetary Fund were working to reunite the rival branches and de-politicize their activities within two weeks, though he gave no details.