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Yemeni government suspends participation in peace talks, demands guarantees

KUWAIT (Reuters) - The Yemeni government on Tuesday suspended its participation in U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Kuwait and said it would only return if its opponents, the Houthis, committed to withdraw from cities they have seized since 2014 and hand over weapons.

Yemeni army soldiers patrol a street in Mansoura district of Yemen's southern port city of Aden March 30, 2016. REUTERS/Fawaz Salman

A wide gap still separates the Iran-allied Houthis and the Western-backed government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi after nearly a month of peace talks in Kuwait intended to end a year of war that has killed more than 6,200 people, half of them civilians.

The talks center on government demands for the Houthis to hand over their weapons and quit cities captured since 2014 and the formation of a new government that would include the Houthis. The Saudi-backed Hadi government is currently based in the southern Yemeni port of Aden while the Houthis retain control of the capital Sanaa.

Yemeni Foreign Minister Abdel-Malek al-Mekhlafi said the government delegation had decided to suspend its participation in the consultations after the Houthis informed them they did not recognize Hadi’s legitimacy.

“We will not return until we get a letter from them that commits them to the U.N. Security Council resolutions, the Gulf initiative and the outcome of the (national) dialogue ... the issue of legitimacy is not subject to discussion,” Mekhlafi told a news conference in Kuwait city.

“If they do not make such a commitment, then there is no point for these talks to continue and as such they (the Houthis) bear responsibility,” he said.

Mekhlafi accused the Houthis of plundering Yemen’s foreign reserves, which he said had stood at $4 billion in 2014, but he said the government delegation had no plan to leave Kuwait, allowing further scope to diplomacy.

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Osama Sari, an activist in the Houthi group, said the government’s decision to suspend its participation in the peace talks had “unmasked its bad intentions”.

The peace talks began last month after a shaky ceasefire was consolidated, easing the almost daily clashes in the country.

Representatives of the warring sides formed joint political and security committees last week but have made little progress toward a full ceasefire or political transition plan.

Yemen’s civil war escalated when an armed push by the Houthis pushed the Hadi government into exile on March 26, 2015.

Seeing the Shi’ite Muslim group as a proxy for its Gulf rival Iran, Saudi Arabia mustered an alliance of mostly Gulf Arab countries to push the group back. But the coalition still appears far from forcing the Houthis out of Sanaa.

Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Cairo, Writing by Sami Aboudi, editing by Gareth Jones