Kerry in Saudi Arabia for talks on Yemen, Syria conflicts

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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Saudi King Salman in the Red Sea city of Jiddah 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 U.N.-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 U.N. 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.

On Thursday, Kerry announced nearly $189 million in additional humanitarian aid for Yemen, bringing the total amount of U.S. 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 bloodshed, I think most would agree, has simply gone on for too long. It has to stop," Kerry told reporters in a press conference in Jiddah. He said he raised concerns about civilian casualties in Yemen during his meetings in Saudi Arabia.

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, Sanaa, 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 U.N. 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 U.S., U.K. and France to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia until it curtails its airstrikes in Yemen. A number of U.S. lawmakers have also expressed concern about Washington's role in the conflict.

Kerry said stability in Yemen is important to blunting the expansion of extremist groups there like the Islamic State and al-Qaida. He said the U.S. is "deeply troubled" over Saudi photographs showing Iranian-supplied missiles being positioned along the Saudi-Yemen border, and rocket attacks fired at Saudi Arabia's southern border from Yemen. The strikes and armed attacks at the border have killed several civilians and dozens of Saudi border guards.

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 U.S., 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 U.S.-led coalition bombing IS in Iraq and Syria.

Kerry also met Thursday with U.N. 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.

He additionally met 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.

"The purpose of our meetings was, quite simply, to see if together we could find a way to end the violence of Yemen, to end the war, and to address the deeply troubling situation there," Kerry told reporters before leaving Jiddah.

He said all participants agreed that a solution to the war must respect the security of Saudi Arabia and provide, "the Houthis, a minority, an opportunity to be part of a government in the future."

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

Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch Kristine Beckerle told The Associated Press that by continuing to sell weapons to the kingdom, the U.S. "isn't just signaling support for Saudi Arabia, it is in fact supporting Saudi Arabia in Yemen." She said HRW found evidence that U.S.-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.

Those talks center on proposals to share intelligence and coordinate militarily with Russia against the IS group 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.


Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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