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GENEVA – The U.N. envoy for Yemen said Wednesday that he hopes Yemenis can draw a "flickering signal of hope" from peace talks set to resume after a two-year hiatus — a new bid to end a grueling war that has spawned the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
Martin Griffiths was preparing to start three days of "consultations" on Thursday with envoys from Yemen's Saudi-backed government and Iran-aligned Shiite rebels, the first U.N.-hosted talks since a previous round ended in Kuwait two years ago. Since then, fighting has put some parts of the country on the brink of famine, fomented a massive cholera outbreak and raised the war's death toll to over 10,000.
The meetings offer a faint hope of ending a conflict that started spiraling toward catastrophe in March 2015, when a Saudi-led, U.S.-backed coalition intervened in support of the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi against the Shiite rebels, known Houthis, who control the capital, Sanaa, and much of northern Yemen.
"We have all agreed the time has come to begin a new process, to relaunch the process, which will lead to a resolution of this conflict," Griffiths told reporters Wednesday. "It has been two years too long since the parties last met."
Griffiths, who was appointed in February, said he met with rebel leader Abdul-Malek al-Houthi in Sanaa, and that al-Houthi was "very positive" about the Geneva discussions and was "actually quite impatient, I think, for rapid progress."
The consultations were to focus on the reactivation of the peace process and confidence-building measures like the release of prisoners, the envoy said.
"People of Yemen, like in any other conflict, are desperately in need of a signal of hope. We'd like to think that the work we will do together in these next days will begin to send a flickering signal of hope to them," Griffiths said.
He couldn't predict whether the two sides would suspend fighting during the talks, but said he did not expect "major" military operations in the pivotal port city of Hodeida — a crucial entry point for aid and imported goods — as they go on.
"The one thing that can destroy any prospects for peace is war," Griffiths said, adding that he hoped at least for "no provocative military events."
The two sides are not expected to meet face-to-face, but will speak separately with Griffiths, who said he hoped they would eventually come together in a one room.
The participation of the Houthis remained in question. Rebel officials said their team refused to leave Sanaa on a U.N. flight, while demanding the evacuation of some injured people to neighboring Oman for treatment. The Saudi-led coalition controls Yemen's airspace and flights from rebel-held Sanaa have been rare to nonexistent in recent months.
Griffiths said he was meeting Wednesday with the government's chief envoy, Foreign Minister Khaled el-Yamani. The rebels were set to send Mohammed Abdel-Salam as their delegation chief. The U.N. envoy has also invited another separatist group, calling itself the Transitional Southern Council, to participate.
In Sanaa, residents expressed mixed views about the prospects for the talks.
"We hope these negotiations will lead to a basis on which an end to bloodshed can be built, because the Yemeni people have reached a state of exhaustion," said lawyer Ameen Al-Bareihi. "We hope that the two sides can calm down in order to reach a solution."
Others expressed concern about the pressure from abroad, and hope that Yemenis themselves would come to terms.
"If you could only see the situation here," said Said Mohamed Al-Senawy, an internally displaced person. "God willing, they will come out with a solution ... We are Yemeni, our blood is all one, and our land shouldn't be divided and our blood shouldn't be spilled — especially for people with outside interests."
The U.N.'s World Food Program says some 18 million people, or two-thirds of Yemen's population, don't know where their next meal will come from and 8 million are "precariously close" to famine. The U.N. says Yemen is facing the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with supplies of food and water, health care and infrastructure damaged or in jeopardy.
Yemen's war is widely seen as a regional conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, eclipsed by the similarly devastating conflict in Syria, which has killed hundreds of thousands and carried greater geopolitical implications.
Associated Press writer Ahmed al-Haj and video journalist Saleh Maglam in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed.