ADEN/RIYADH (Reuters) - The United Nations envoy to Yemen said on Sunday that peace talks set for next week in Geneva can end over two months of war and save the country from permanent division.
Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s interview with pan-Arab channel Al Jazeera raised hopes of ending Arab bombing and internal fighting which have killed around 2,000 Yemenis, but the government in exile presented a hard line for the negotiations and demanded the dominant Houthi group retreat.
“Geneva is a breakthrough, if it happens, it can lead to a new dynamic, an end to this conflict,” Ould Cheikh Ahmed told the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television.
“I‘m optimistic that Yemen will remain unified. The conflict has not reached a point of no return ... This is why we need people to return to the negotiating table and help work to avoid sectarianism and the division between north and south,” he said.
A Saudi-led coalition of Sunni Muslim states has been bombing the Houthis, fearing the Shi‘ite movement will act as a proxy for Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival in the region, Shi‘ite Iran.
Iran and the Houthis deny any military or economic links. The Houthis say their seizure of the capital Sanaa in September and their advance south is part of a revolution against a corrupt government.
Hailing from Yemen’s far north, the Houthis have been battling mostly Sunni militiamen backing President Abdu-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in the country’s south, deepening fears that the conflict will exacerbate Yemen’s regional and religious rifts.
President Hadi, who fled to Saudi Arabia in March, insisted on Monday that the Geneva meetings would not be negotiations but would focus on making the Houthis conform to a U.N. Security Council Resolution in April which called for them to quit Yemen’s main cities and recognize his authority.
“These are not talks, it is only a discussion to implement U.N. Security Council resolution 2216, how to implement it on the ground,” Hadi told Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV.
Since sweeping into the capital Sanaa in September and other cities in the months after, the Houthis remain entrenched throughout much of the country despite 11 weeks of Arab air strikes aimed at dislodging them and restoring Hadi.
The Houthis have rejected the U.N. resolution, saying Hadi’s internationally recognised government has lost legitimacy. They had previously called for a ceasefire before any talks.
In the last week, both sides softened their stances and committed to meeting in Geneva without preconditions.
Meanwhile, Saudi-led planes struck Sanaa again on Monday, targeting a missile base, a special forces camp and the home of a former defence minister close to the Houthis.
The official Houthi TV channel al-Masira said 10 people were killed in air strikes in their remote heartland province of Saada along the Saudi border.
The report could not be independently confirmed.
In the southern province of Dhalea, residents said 23 fighters on the Houthi side were killed or wounded in fresh fighting. Residents of the neighbouring province of Abyan said five civilians were killed in Houthi shelling amid battles over the key city of Lawdar.
Reporting by Omar Fahmy and Sami Aboudi; Writing by Noah Browning; Editing by Dominic Evans