Yemeni Houthis back U.N. peace talks

The leader of Yemen’s rebels has backed U.N.-hosted peace talks on the conflict roiling the country, hours after the world body announced they would start in Geneva next week.

The talks are aimed at defusing the deepening crisis in the southern Arabian Peninsula, where Saudi-led forces killed at least 15 Houthis in the latest airstrikes of a campaign to restore President Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi.

Abdel-Malek al-Houthi said he believes the only solution to Yemen’s crisis is to “hold U.N.-sponsored talks in a neutral country.”

The Houthis boycotted three-days of talks on Yemen in the Saudi capital of Riyadh earlier this week.

“The secretary-general is pleased to announce the launch of inclusive consultations starting on May 28 in Geneva to restore momentum toward a Yemeni-led political transition process,” the U.N. statement issued in New York said.

A U.N. Security Council source said Ban was expected to attend the opening session.

In New York, the U.N. Security Council met behind closed doors to discuss the crisis. It issued a statement urging “all Yemeni parties to attend these talks and engage without preconditions and in good faith,” while also calling for the resumption of humanitarian pauses in the fighting.

The foreign minister of the exiled Yemeni government based in Saudi Arabia appeared surprised by the announcement and said the Houthis must first disarm and quit cities they seized since last September.

“We didn’t get an official invitation,” Riad Yassin Abdullah said by phone. “It’s very short notice. If it happens, it shouldn’t be on May 28.”

But Yemen’s U.N. Ambassador Khaled Alyemany said all parties, including the Houthis, would attend.

“Of course President Hadi will be represented in Geneva,” he told reporters in New York. “He might be sending Vice President and Prime Minister [Khaled] Bahah, he might be sending somebody else.”

Speaking to reporters, U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said the format of the Geneva talks was still being worked out. He said U.N. envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed is expected to visit Tehran Thursday for meetings with officials on Yemen, but did not give details.

Houthi announced “conditions” for their attendance at the talks in a speech broadcast Wednesday, including a commitment by parties to a controversial agreement after the Houthis’ September takeover of the capital that integrated the militia into all the state’s institutions.

“The only way to solve the political problem is dialogue in a neutral country over what has been agreed upon in advance in the peace and partnership agreement,” he said.

A conference organized by the Yemeni government concluded in Riyadh Tuesday by calling on the Houthis to drop their weapons and withdraw from the cities they had captured before any talks could begin.

The U.N. announcement came as Iran announced that the Iranian cargo ship sailing to Yemen with 2,500 tons of food and medical supplies would submit to international inspections in Djibouti before continuing on to Yemen’s Hodeida port, which is under Houthi control.

The move reduces the risk of a showdown between the vessel, which had been escorted by Iranian warships, and Saudi-led forces enforcing inspections on vessels entering Yemeni ports to prevent arms supplies from reaching the Houthis.

“We have decided to dock our ship in Djibouti so the United Nations inspection protocol can take place,” Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian was quoted as saying by the ISNA news agency.

The voyage had threatened to escalate a regional confrontation over Yemen, in which Saudi Arabia and its allies have carried out almost two months of air raids on Houthi fighters it says are armed by Iran. Tehran dismisses the allegation.

Saudi-led forces have imposed searches on all ships entering Yemen to prevent arms reaching the Houthis.

Meanwhile, the Saudi-led coalition continued to pound the Houthis and their allies in at least five northern provinces under rebel control, including Sanaa.

Residents said that overnight, warplanes carried out the most sustained bombardment of Sanaa since the offensive started, hitting army bases and weapons depots.

In the western city of Ibb, warplanes hit a police commando camp run by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s loyalists, killing at least 12 and wounding 17, officials said.

In the strategic port city of Aden, the rebels and their allies randomly shelled residential areas, killing one woman and wounding three.

Tribal sources along the Saudi-Yemeni border also said that more than 15 Houthi fighters and at least one Saudi officer were killed in intense clashes along their common border near the Saudi city of Najran.

Planes also bombed a Yemeni army camp in the northern border province of Hajjah. Residents said huge explosions had been heard at the camp, in a sign the strike might have hit missile storage facilities.

The Yemeni conflict has killed 1,820 people and wounded 7,330 since March 19, according to U.N. estimates, with nearly a half million people displaced through May 7.

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