Yemen rebels head to Geneva as their forces gain ground


SANAA: A delegation of Yemeni rebels headed Sunday for U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Geneva as their forces gained ground by seizing a provincial capital near the border with Saudi Arabia.

After repeatedly delaying their departure, the delegation left from capital Sanaa aboard a U.N. plane for the Swiss city, where the talks are due to start Monday, a day late.

The U.N. peace envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, said in a statement that Monday would see the start of “preliminary inclusive consultations” bringing together the country’s warring factions for the first time. He appealed for participants to take part “in good faith and without pre-conditions, and in a climate of trust and mutual respect.”

Abdulmalik Agra, a member of the rebels’ political council, told AP that its group included a Houthi leader, Mehdi Mashat, official Ali Hamza al-Houthi, and three others – including men from the party of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a rebel ally. They decided to attend the talks after the U.N. agreed to broaden the structure so they were not based solely on two warring sides. Members of the Socialist and Haqq parties were also joining.

A day earlier, a plane meant to carry the rebels and their allies to the talks left Yemen without the delegates on board, casting doubt on whether the meetings would go forward as planned.

The delegation representing the government of embattled President Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi arrived in Geneva Saturday morning.

The rebels faced little resistance Sunday as they took control of Al-Hazm, the main city of Jawf province, residents and pro-government fighters said.

The city lies only 150 km south of the border with Saudi Arabia.

In Yemen’s main southern city of Aden, coalition airstrikes Sunday killed 13 rebels, a military source close to them said. Fighting raged on across several districts of Aden, residents said, accusing the rebels of firing Katyusha rockets on residential areas, destroying at least six homes.

And in Daleh farther north, six rebels and four pro-government fighters died in 24 hours of clashes, the province’s deputy governor said. Meanwhile, thousands of Houthi supporters marched in Sanaa in protest of the war and what they described as the siege of the city.

Analysts say the conflict has reached a deadlock and pressure has been mounting for an attempt at a political solution.

In Geneva Sunday for preliminary meetings, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is to take part in the opening session of the talks. He has said the negotiations are aimed at securing a cease-fire, agreeing on a withdrawal plan for the Houthis and stepping up humanitarian aid deliveries.

The delegations would “start with what we call proximity talks in two separate rooms with the hope they can be brought together,” U.N. spokesman Ahmad Fawzi told reporters in Geneva.

The Security Council this week heard a report from new U.N. aid chief Stephen O’Brien describing Yemen’s humanitarian crisis as “catastrophic,” with 20 million civilians needing aid – 80 percent of the population.