ADEN (Reuters) - Former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh said on Saturday he was ready for a “new page” in ties with the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen if it stopped attacks on his country, in a move that could pave the way to end nearly three years of war.
The apparent shift in position came as Saleh’s supporters battled Houthi fighters for a fourth day in the capital Sanaa, in fighting which the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said has killed dozens of people and prompted calls to protect civilians.
The fighting was the most serious since the Houthis and Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) made common cause against the Saudi-led coalition which joined the Yemen war in 2015 to try to restore the internationally recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to power.
The clashes between Saleh’s supporters and the Houthis underscore the complex situation in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, where a proxy war between the Iran-aligned Houthis and the Saudi-backed Hadi has caused one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes in recent times.
“I call upon the brothers in neighbouring states and the alliance to stop their aggression, lift the siege, open the airports and allow food aid and the saving of the wounded and we will turn a new page by virtue of our neighbourliness,” Saleh said in a televised speech.
“We will deal with them in a positive way and what happened to Yemen is enough,” he added.
Saleh, who was forced to step down by a 2011 mass uprising against his 33 years in office, said Yemen’s parliament, which is dominated by the GPC, was the only legitimate power in the country and was ready for talks with the coalition.
The Saudi-led coalition welcomed Saleh’s change of stance.
In a statement carried by the Saudi-owned Al-Hadath channel, the coalition said it was “confident of the will of the leaders and sons” of Saleh’s GPC party to return to Arab fold.
Hadi, in a statement after a meeting with his advisors, also said he was ready to work with Saleh against the Houthis.
“The meeting calls for turning a new page with all the political sides ... and to form a broad national coalition that will lay the foundations for a new era and unify everyone against the coup militia,” the statement said.
The coalition accuses non-Arab Iran of trying to expand its influence into Arab countries, including Yemen, which shares a long border with Saudi Arabia, by aligning themselves with the Houthis and Saleh.
The Houthis accused Saleh of betrayal, and vowed to keep up the fight against the Saudi-led coalition.
“It is not strange or surprising that Saleh turns his back on a partnership he never believed in,” the group’s political bureau said in a statement. “The priority has been and still is to confront the forces of aggression.”
The Houthi group leader, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, had earlier appealed to Saleh to avoid any escalation, saying that the crisis would only serve Yemen’s enemies.
Residents of Sanaa described heavy fighting in Hadda, a southern residential district where many of Saleh’s relatives live, early on Saturday, with sounds of explosions and gunfire heard while the streets were deserted.
The fighting eased in the afternoon as Saleh supporters gained the upper hand.
There was no immediate word on casualties, but ICRC Regional Director Robert Mardini, writing on his Twitter account, said that dozens have been killed and hundreds were wounded in the fighting which began on Wednesday after a dispute erupted over a mosque in the capital.
Both sides have reported that each side has lost eight fighters.
The United Nations envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, and the ICRC urged the parties to avoid targeting civilians.
Saleh’s GPC party accused the Houthis of failing to honour a truce and said in a statement on its website that the Houthis bear responsibility for dragging the country into a civil war.
It also called on supporters, including tribal fighters, to “defend themselves, their country, their revolution and their republic...”
The GPC appealed to the army and security forces to remain neutral in the conflict.
Yemen’s war has killed more than 10,000 people since 2015, displaced more than two million people, caused a cholera outbreak infecting nearly one million people and led the country on the brink of famine.
Additional reporting by Omar Fahmy in Cairo, Michelle Nichols in New York and Tom Miles in Geneva,; writing by Sami Aboudi; editing by Jason Neely and Stephen Powell