SANAA/DUBAI (Reuters) - Yemen’s dominant Houthis agreed on Thursday to join United Nations-backed peace talks in Geneva planned for June 14, a day after their opponents in the exiled government confirmed their attendance.
A Saudi-led coalition of Arab states has been bombing Houthi forces, the strongest faction in Yemen’s civil war, for over two months in an attempt to restore President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who has fled to Saudi Arabia. Around 2,000 people have been killed and half a million displaced by the fighting.
Coalition Arab bombings killed around 58 people across Yemen on Wednesday and Thursday, the state news agency Saba, controlled by the Houthis, said.
48 people, most of them women and children, were killed in air strikes on their houses in the Houthi heartland in the rural far north adjoining Saudi Arabia.
The reports could not be independently verified.
The U.N. envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, has for weeks been shuttling between the Houthi-controlled capital, the exiled government in Riyadh and other regional capitals to garner support for peace talks in Geneva.
Daifallah al-Shami, a member of the Houthis’ politburo, told Reuters his movement would take part, and “supports without preconditions the efforts of the United Nations to organize Yemeni-Yemeni dialogue”.
Both sides appeared to have relaxed their conditions for opening the talks.
Hadi had previously insisted that the Houthis obey U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216, passed in April, which required them to recognize his administration and quit Yemen’s main cities. The Houthis for their part had sought a suspension of the bombing raids.
Yemeni politicians say representatives of long-time president Ali Abdullah Saleh will also accept a U.N. invitation to the talks, but that southern rebel factions, who also control swathes of Yemen, are unlikely to be invited.
The Houthis, who seized the capital Sanaa last September and now control much of the country with the help of forces loyal to Saleh, say they are part of a “revolution” against corruption.
Saudi Arabia and allied Sunni Muslim states fear that the Houthis, who hail from a Shi’ite sect, will spread the influence of the Gulf states’ Shi’ite arch-rival Iran in the Arabian Peninsula.
The foreign minister of one of those allies, Qatar, told Reuters in Paris that the armed intervention had prevented a Houthi takeover.
“If there had not been (Operation) Decisive Storm, we would have seen the Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh’s people all over Yemen,” Khaled al-Attiyah said. “I think Decisive Storm ... has restored legitimacy in Yemen.
“Is it enough or not? I think it will be enough when the Houthis and Saleh’s followers fulfill the elements of 2216.”
Overnight, around 12 air raids hit weapons stores around the presidential palace in Sanaa, according to a Reuters witness, triggering secondary blasts that lit up the night sky.
Air strikes also hit a naval base and Yemen’s naval command in the Red Sea port city of Hodaida, residents said, and the state news agency Saba said six people were killed.
Saudi shelling also hit the main border crossing from Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, in the far northern province of Haradh, demolishing Yemeni customs offices.
In the southern city of Aden, a bastion of support for Hadi and scene of street clashes, air raids hit Houthi positions in the northern suburbs on Thursday.
Local fighters in the city and in a tangled battle line stretching through Yemen’s south oppose the Houthis, but many support eventual independence for South Yemen, which was forced to unify with the north, under Saleh, in a 1994 civil war.
Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Noah Browning; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Toby Chopra