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Kerry in Saudi Arabia for Talks on Yemen, Syria Conflicts

(Associated Press) RIYADH — US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Saudi King Salman in the Red Sea city of Jeddah on Thursday ahead of wider talks mostly focusing on Yemen’s 18-month-long war and the conflict in Syria.

The flurry of meetings come as UN-mediated peace talks to bring an end to the war in Yemen were suspended earlier this month. They also fall on the same day that the UN human rights chief called for an international investigation of rights abuses and violence in Yemen’s civil war, which has killed more than 9,000 people, including nearly 3,800 civilians, and displaced 3 million.

Kerry announced on Thursday nearly $189 million in additional humanitarian aid for Yemen, bringing the total amount of US assistance to more than $327 million since October 2015. More than 80 percent of the country, or about 21 million people, are in need of aid and some 10 million are in need of emergency food assistance.

The war in Yemen pits a nine-country Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia against Shiite Houthi rebels and forces loyal to Yemen’s former president. The Houthis, who are allied with Saudi Arabia’s regional rival Iran, seized the capital, Sana’a, in 2014.

The United States has backed the coalition with multi-billion dollar arms sales and provided logistical and intelligence support.

In recommendations issued Thursday, the UN high commissioner for human rights called on the international community to “to refrain from encouraging or arming parties to the conflict.” Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other rights groups have similarly urged the US, UK and France to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia until it curtails its airstrikes in Yemen. A number of US lawmakers have also expressed concern about Washington’s role in the conflict.

During a press conference in Jeddah, Kerry said stability in Yemen is important to blunting the expansion of extremist groups there like ISIS and al-Qaida. He expressed concern about missiles and rockets fired from inside Yemen toward Saudi Arabia’s southern border. The strikes and armed attacks at the border have killed several civilians and dozens of Saudi border guards.

A senior State Department official traveling with Kerry said he was expected to raise US concerns about civilian casualties in Yemen during his meetings in Saudi Arabia. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the meetings.

Kerry’s meeting with King Salman lasted roughly half an hour. The two spoke briefly about the monarch’s health and an operation he had in the US, apparently for back pain. It was not clear when the surgery was performed.

After his meeting with the Saudi monarch, Kerry wrote on Twitter that they discussed the “need to reach a political solution (and) address the humanitarian crisis in Yemen,” as well as the war in Syria and the fight against the Islamic State group.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states back rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, and are members of the US-led coalition bombing ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Kerry also met Thursday with UN special envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed. The two later met with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, British Under Secretary at the Foreign Office Tobias Ellwood, and the United Arab Emirates’ Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan to exchange ideas about reaching a political solution in Yemen.

The night before, Kerry met for three hours with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is also Saudi Arabia’s defense minister.

He was additionally set to meet with Omani Foreign Minister Alawi bin Abdullah before a meeting with other Gulf Cooperation Council foreign ministers from Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar. Oman is the only country of the six-nation GCC that is not part of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch Kristine Beckerle told The Associated Press that by continuing to sell weapons to the kingdom, the US “isn’t just signaling support for Saudi Arabia, it is in fact supporting Saudi Arabia in Yemen.” She said HRW found evidence that US-supplied bombs killed 97 civilians, including 25 children, in airstrikes on a market in northwestern Yemen in March.

“It isn’t just about casualties, but really about a devastating humanitarian crisis that is threatening people’s access to food and health care,” she said.

Kerry is scheduled to travel to Geneva next, where he will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday. A senior Emirati national security official is also expected to take part in the meetings in Geneva.

The State Department official said Kerry would be giving Gulf Arab states “an update on where things are going in Geneva” regarding proposals to share intelligence and coordinate militarily with Russia against ISIS and al-Qaida. Russia and Iran, however, are strong backers of the Syrian president and have been accused of targeting moderate opposition forces, some of whom are supported by Washington and Gulf Arab states.

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