RIYADH - Gulf foreign ministers on Thursday rejected holding on neutral ground talks between rival political forces in Yemen, where Iran-backed Huthi rebels have defied air strikes and refused to give ground.
They insisted after a meeting in Riyadh that the talks be held in Saudi Arabia, which leads an Arab coalition that has been bombing the Shiite rebels since late March. Iran has proposed holding United Nations talks on ending the war in Yemen at a neutral venue, excluding all countries from the coalition.
But in a statement after talks at a Riyadh airbase the six Gulf Cooperation Council states ‘affirmed their support to intensive efforts by the legitimate Yemeni government to hold a conference under the umbrella of the GCC secretariat in Riyadh.’ The conference would be attended by ‘all Yemeni parties and components supporting legitimacy as well as Yemen’s security and stability,’ said GCC secretary general Abdullatif al-Zayani.
The GCC groups regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia along with Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. All but Oman belong to the coalition, although Western diplomats have said Saudi Arabia carried out the majority of strikes against the Huthis itself. Coalition warplanes pressed their attacks on rebel positions as the ministers met for about three hours in a chandeliered room.
The air strikes began in late March when the Huthis and their allies advanced on the main southern city of Aden, where President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi fled after the rebels seized large parts of the country including Sanaa. Hadi escaped to Riyadh, which feared an Iran-friendly regime taking control of its southern neighbour. Iran has denied charges of arming the rebels, called for an end to the strikes and pushed for a negotiated settlement. The conflict has heightened tensions in the region.
Iran said two of its destroyers sent to the Gulf of Aden had reached the entrance of Bab al-Mandab, a strategic strait between Yemen and Djibouti. Tehran stressed the warships would stay out of the territorial waters of other countries. The coalition has imposed an air and sea blockade on Yemen. Last week US officials said an American aircraft carrier and a cruiser left the waters off Yemen and headed back to the Gulf after an Iranian naval convoy also turned back from the area.
Washington suspected the convoy of carrying weapons destined for the Huthis. Thursday’s meeting aimed to lay the groundwork for a GCC leaders’ summit on Tuesday, which will also be attended by French President Francois Hollande. Leaders of GCC countries - many of which have taken part in a US-led air campaign against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria - are preparing to meet US President Barack Obama in mid-May in Washington.
Daily coalition strikes continued on Thursday, despite an announcement last week that the campaign was moving into a new phase. The rebels have refused to withdraw from territory they seized, in defiance of a UN Security Council resolution imposing an arms embargo and sanctions on their leaders.
Warplanes hit Huthi locations in Aden, helping pro-government forces to retake positions, sources among the southern fighters said. Eight people were killed in overnight clashes in the port city, including five pro-government fighters and three civilians, the city’s health chief Al-Khader Laswar said. Forty-four others were wounded. Details of rebel losses were unavailable. The Huthis have allied with troops loyal to former strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, clashing with militia in Aden known as ‘Popular Resistance’ units that have sided with Hadi.
Warplanes also hit rebel targets in the central city of Taez, an official said, after overnight raids targeted Huthis in the southern provinces of Lahj and Abyan, according to pro-government fighters. In Kirsh, a town linking Lahj with Taez, rebels used tanks to shell residential areas as coalition planes dropped arms to pro-Hadi forces, officials said. The UN says about half of the more than 1,000 people killed in the Yemen fighting since late March were civilians, and millions of people have been affected by the conflict. In their statement, the Gulf ministers ‘applauded the humanitarian aid from Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries, while also calling on the international community to rush more aid to Yemen.’