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Yemen peace talks on hold as U.N. mediator awaits Houthi team

GENEVA (Reuters) - U.N.-mediated Yemen peace talks hung in the balance as the government delegation warned that it would leave on Friday if representatives of the Houthi movement had not shown up.

United Nations envoy Martin Griffiths leaves a hotel after meeting the delegation of the Government of Yemen in Geneva, Switzerland September 6, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

The United Nations announced on Thursday night that U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths was not expected to hold any talks at its Geneva offices on Friday.

Two sources in the government delegation told Reuters that they had given the international envoy additional time to noon on Friday to persuade the Houthis to come to the Swiss city.

“By 12 pm if the Houthis don’t leave Sanaa, I think the government delegation will decide to leave (Geneva),” said one.

A Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen’s war against the Iranian-allied Houthis in 2015 to restore President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s internationally recognized government. Subsequent peace talks flopped.

Since then the humanitarian situation has worsened sharply, putting 8.4 million people on the brink of starvation and ruining the already weak economy.

U.N. Special Envoy Griffiths said in an earlier statement that he had discussed confidence-building measures with Yemen’s foreign minister Khaled al-Yamani. The government delegation later met with Arab ambassadors who urged patience, a delegation source said.

“Today should have been the first day of our consultation. We are here, the Houthis are not accepting to come ... We think that they are committing a huge mistake by not engaging seriously in these peace talks,” Yamani told reporters.

“We are not here indefinitely, we will not stay until the end of these consultations, we just wanted to prove to the Special Envoy that we are engaging. Tomorrow, in a few hours, we will take a decision on should we continue to stay in Geneva or should we withdraw,” he added.

Yamani said the Hadi government - which is backed by the coalition carring out air strikes on the country - was serious about pursuing peace. It was not giving an ultimatum to the Houthis, whom he described as divided between hardliners and moderates.

Griffiths called for the Houthis to attend the talks, aimed at relaunching peace negotiations after nearly three years.

He conceded there were “challenges” in bringing the parties together, but still wanted to see the delegation from the Houthi-held capital of Sanaa arrive.

The world body wants the government and the Houthi movement to work toward a deal to end the war, remove foreign forces from Yemen, and establish a national unity government.

An inclusive political solution is required to end the conflict in Yemen, where people live in dire humanitarian, economic and security conditions, Griffiths said.

The Houthi movement’s al-Masirah TV reported on Wednesday that the coalition had prevented the Houthi delegation from flying from Sanaa to Geneva. The Houthis have accused the U.N. of not keeping a promise to transport wounded on the flight.

On Thursday, a source from Sanaa airport said there was no plane there yet for the Houthi delegation.

Hamza al-Kamali, Yemeni deputy minister for youth, told reporters in Geneva earlier on Thursday that the flight clearance had been given three days ago.

Saudi Arabia’s air defense forces intercepted and destroyed a ballistic missile fired by the Houthis in the southern city of Najran, wounding 26 people with shrapnel, Saudi civil defense said on Wednesday.

Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Aden and Abdulrahman al-Ansi in Sanaa; writing by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by William Maclean and Toby Chopra