Oman mediating between Yemenis over U.N. peace plan: official

DUBAI (Reuters) - Oman is mediating between Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government and its Houthi opponents over a U.N. plan to resume peace talks in the war-torn country, a Yemeni government official said on Tuesday.

Pro-government fighter army troops walk in a position they retook from Houthi fighters near the Republican Palace in the northwestern city of Taiz, Yemen May 29, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer

Yemen has been torn by two years of civil war, which has killed over 10,000 people, displaced more than three million and ruined the country’s infrastructure. The war, which has sucked in a Saudi-led Arab coalition, has shown little sign of ending.

The war has been exploited by al Qaeda and the Islamic State group to widen their influence in the impoverished country, prompting repeated U.S. air strikes against militants.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Yemeni Foreign Minister Abdel-Malek al-Mekhlafi was in Muscat at Oman’s invitation to discuss ways to bridge differences with the Houthis, who control the capital Sanaa with their allies, over plans presented by the U.N. special envoy to Yemen last week.

The plans, presented by U.N. Special Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed during a regional tour last week, included confidence building measures such as turning over the Red Sea port of Hodeidah to a neutral party, opening Sanaa airport for civilian traffic and paying civil servants’ salaries.

U.N. aid chief Stephen O’Brien warned on Tuesday that any attempt to extend the war to the strategic port city would “directly and irrevocably drive the Yemeni population further into starvation and famine”.

The Omani side has conveyed to Mekhlafi the Houthis’ willingness to accept this plan but also its insistence that civil servants’ salaries be paid first.

“The differences regarding Hodeidah now center on the identity of the neutral party which will manage the port,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.

Oman maintains good ties with the Houthis, who seized Sanaa in 2014 in a campaign that eventually forced Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia in 2015 with his government. The Gulf Arab state had long mediated in international affairs, including facilitating talks between Iran and the United States.

Hadi’s government, which had recently made some small gains at the battlefront after months after a long stalemate, has threatened to attack Hodeidah, where most of Yemen’s food and humanitarian supplies enter, unless the Houthis agreed to turn the facility over to neutral observers.

The Houthis have in turn demanded that the Saudi-led coalition that controls Yemen’s airspace allow Sanaa airport to reopen and that the Yemen central bank, which Hadi had moved last year from Sanaa to Aden, pay salaries that had been withheld from civil servants for several months.

The Yemeni official said the Omani side have informed Mekhlafi in talks on Monday that the Houthis were ready to agree to Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s plan in full.

“The differences are not confined to the neutral party that will administer Hodeidah port,” the official said.

Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Tom Heneghan