BERLIN (Reuters) - A Saudi-led coalition will not accept a Yemeni peace deal unless it requires the Houthi movement to disband its armed wing, a spokesman said on Wednesday, in effect rebuffing an offer by the Iran-allied group for a truce made three days earlier.
The Arab alliance has been fighting the Houthis in Yemen since March 2015 after the group took over the capital Sanaa and forced the internationally-recognized President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi into exile.
The war has killed at least 10,000 people and has pushed impoverished Yemen towards famine. On Sunday a top Houthi official offered to stop attacks on Saudi Arabia and an amnesty for Yemeni fighters opposing the group if the kingdom stopped air strikes and lifted a near blockade.
But Saudi Brigadier General Ahmed al-Asseri, spokesman for the Arab coalition, told reporters in Berlin that while a political solution to the conflict was needed, Saudi Arabia would not support an agreement that allowed the Houthi movement to maintain its militias.
The kingdom would not “accept an armed militia at our back door,” Asseri said, without making a direct reference to the truce offer. The briefing with Asseri held at a Berlin hotel had been organized by the Saudi embassy in Germany.
Hadi’s government says that any move toward peace can begin only when the Houthis heed a 2015 U.N. Security Council Resolution mandating that they quit Yemen’s main cities and hand over weapons they had seized since 2014.
Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia observed a period of calm with the Houthis that had facilitated U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Kuwait. The talks ended last month without an agreement.
The Houthis say they are fighting a revolution against a corrupt government and its Gulf Arab backers. U.N.-sponsored talks collapsed last month.
Asked about the military situation in Yemen, Asseri said Yemeni forces loyal to Hadi’s government were advancing towards the capital Sanaa, still held by the Houthis, and that he did not expect major combat once troops reached the city.
“Things are going good now. Day by day, the Yemeni army gets closer to the capital,” Asseri said. “We do not expect major combat in the capital because there are not a lot of (military) forces in the capital. We go slowly but surely.”
The general said forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh - also fighting against Hadi’s troops — were positioned mostly in the northern and eastern parts of Sanaa, and there were not a lot of pro-Houthi militias in the city.
Asseri said Saudi Arabia had rebuilt the Yemeni army “from scratch” and remained committed to its support, but did not want to alienate the Yemeni population by putting large numbers of Saudi forces into the country.
“We perform very limited military action in supporting the Yemeni army. We perform close air support, we target their munitions storage, we target movements from time to time, but it is a Yemeni army operation,” he said.
Yemen and Saudi Arabia blame Shi’ite Iran for supplying weapons to the Houthis, who belong to the Zaydi branch of Shi’ite Islam. Tehran views the Houthis as the legitimate authority in Yemen and denies it supplies them with weapons.
The Saudi-led coalition has maintained a near-blockade on Yemen’s ports which it says aims to prevent arms from getting to the Houthis, but has also hobbled Yemen’s already struggling economy and created a humanitarian crisis.
Asseri said five shipments of arms from Iran to Yemen had been intercepted by Australia, the United States, France and Saudi Arabia off the coast of Yemen. He gave no further details.
The United Nations said last month that 3,799 civilians have been killed in the conflict, with air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition responsible for 60 percent of deaths. Saudi Arabia has said it is committed to international humanitarian law.
Asseri said Saudi Arabia sought to avoid killing civilians by using precision weapons, but said the Houthis used civilian sites for military operations.
“This is a war ... Mistakes could happen,” he said. “We do what is necessary to avoid any mistakes, and if there is a mistake, we have a committee between the coalition and the Yemeni government investigate.”
Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky