Kerry meets key Mideast allies before Syria parley with Lavrov
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Kerry meets key Mideast allies before Syria parley with Lavrov

In Saudi Arabia, agenda includes push for Yemen peace, exploring ways to strengthen Libya government against IS

US Secretary of State John Kerry (C) is greeted upon his arrival at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, on August 24, 2016. AFP / STRINGER / Saudi Arabia
US Secretary of State John Kerry (C) is greeted upon his arrival at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, on August 24, 2016. AFP / STRINGER / Saudi Arabia

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AFP) – US Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Gulf counterparts and a British minister in Saudi Arabia on Thursday, to discuss the conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Libya.

The coordination with Washington’s major Middle East allies came on the eve of Syria talks in Geneva between Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov.

After a 30-minute meeting with Saudi King Salman, Kerry was to focus on the conflict in Yemen with UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, Britain’s Middle East undersecretary Tobias Ellwood, and his Saudi and United Arab Emirates (UAE) counterparts.

On Yemen, a senior State Department official said, Kerry wants “to share ideas and initiatives for getting the political discussions back on track and trying to get a political solution.”

The aim is also to put in place mechanisms for delivering desperately needed humanitarian aid to the impoverished country neighboring Saudi Arabia, he said.

Forces loyal to the Saudi-backed Yemeni president flash their arms at a road on the entrance to Abyan province as they take part in an operation to drive Al-Qaeda fighters out of the southern provincial capital, on April 23, 2016 (AFP PHOTO / SALEH AL-OBEIDI)
Forces loyal to the Saudi-backed Yemeni president flash their arms at a road on the entrance to Abyan province as they take part in an operation to drive Al-Qaeda fighters out of the southern provincial capital, on April 23, 2016 (AFP PHOTO / SALEH AL-OBEIDI)

“It’s not either-or. We want to get humanitarian access better ensured and at the same time we need a ceasefire in place. They go hand in hand but you need a reduction in violence,” the official said.

Riyadh heads an Arab coalition that began air raids in March 2015 and later sent in ground forces to support Yemen’s internationally-recognized government after Iran-backed Shiite Huthi rebels and their allies overran much of the country.

As the civilian death toll climbs following the suspension of UN-brokered peace talks, the kingdom has faced rising criticism from human rights groups.

The United Nations on Thursday called for the creation of an independent international body to investigate an array of serious violations in Yemen.

In a new report, it laid out a long line of allegations of grave human rights abuses by all sides in Yemen’s war, which has left nearly 4,000 civilians dead.

Saudi-led coalition air strikes were suspected of causing around half of all civilian deaths, while attacks by groups affiliated with the rebels were blamed for around a quarter of the deaths, the report said.

Kerry’s encounter with Salman followed a three-hour meeting overnight with the king’s powerful son, Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman.

Saudi Arabia and other Arab states in the Gulf belong to a US-led military alliance battling the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group that has seized large parts of Syria and Iraq.

The kingdom also backs armed rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Kerry was to update regional allies on efforts to end the heavy bloodshed in Syria “because they do have influence” over opposition groups, the State Department official said.

Illustrative: (L-R) Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, US Secretary of States John Kerry and UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura follow a news conference after the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) meeting in Munich, southern Germany, on February 12, 2016. (AFP/Christof Stache)
Illustrative: (L-R) Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, US Secretary of States John Kerry and UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura follow a news conference after the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) meeting in Munich, southern Germany, on February 12, 2016. (AFP/Christof Stache)

The secretary of state was due to head later Thursday for Geneva to meet Lavrov.

Moscow and Washington are on opposite sides of the five-year-old Syria conflict but have a common foe in IS, and they have been in contact on efforts to establish military cooperation against the jihadists.

IS has also claimed deadly bombing and shooting attacks against the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia and its security forces.

The State Department official said earlier that Kerry’s talks with the Saudis would likewise cover Libya, where a UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) is challenged by a rival administration.

Smoke billows from buildings after the air force from the pro-government forces loyal to Libya's Government of National Unity (GNA) fired rockets targeting Islamic State (IS) group positions in Sirte on July 18, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD TURKIA)
Smoke billows from buildings after the air force from the pro-government forces loyal to Libya’s Government of National Unity (GNA) fired rockets targeting Islamic State (IS) group positions in Sirte on July 18, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD TURKIA)

Pro-GNA forces are battling IS in Libya’s coastal city of Sirte.

“What we’re trying to do is to continue to support the GNA, work towards political solutions and making sure we’re putting pressure on Daesh (IS) inside Libya,” the official said.

Kerry was to focus on the same conflicts at a working lunch with ministers of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council which groups Saudi Arabia with its neighbors.

The talks came after their regional rival Iran sent four warships close to two US Navy guided missile destroyers in the Strait of Hormuz, according to American defense officials.

The USS Nitze shot warning flares, sounded its whistles and attempted unsuccessfully to communicate with the Iranian boats during Tuesday’s incident, the US Central Command said.

The encounter occurred in international waters of the strait, a vitally important choke point into the Gulf with Iran on one side and the UAE on the other.

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