GENEVA/SANAA (Reuters) - A fistfight erupted on the sidelines of peace talks in Geneva on Thursday between supporters of different warring factions in Yemen, underlining the divisions that have thwarted United Nations efforts broker a truce in the near three-month conflict.
Yemeni opponents of the Houthi forces that drove the government into exile interrupted a news conference by Houthi officials, throwing shoes and insulting them as “criminals” and “dogs” who were “killing the children of south Yemen”.
A Saudi-led coalition has been launching air raids against the Iran-allied Houthis since late March in a campaign to restore the exiled government and back its armed supporters.
The fighting continued on Thursday, with around 30 killed in clashes between Houthis and tribesmen in the central province of Mareb, tribal sources said, while the capital Sanaa was hit by air strikes targeting Houthi military sites.
The peace talks are struggling to bring together the rival factions and, with discussions due to conclude on Friday or Saturday, delegates have reported little progress toward the ceasefire the UN has requested.
Hamza Al-Houthi, head of the Houthi delegation to the UN-sponsored talks, stayed composed throughout the brawl that began when a woman in a pink headscarf went to the podium and threw a shoe at him, a particular insult in the Arab world.
A fistfight then broke out between Houthis and protesters before the latter were escorted out.
A representative of Yemen’s General People’s Congress, which is allied to the Houthis, said they supported a pause to let humanitarian aid into Yemen but doubted others would do the same.
“We are absolutely in favor of a humanitarian truce. I don’t think this pause receives the approval of Saudi Arabia, after all they are aggressing us, it is up to them,” Yasser Al Ewady told reporters in Geneva.
But Khaled Bahah, Yemen’s Vice President in exile, suggested the Houthis would use a ceasefire to expand their reach.
“We are hoping for a permanent humanitarian ceasefire, not a temporary truce. Because a temporary truce is exploited to spread the battlefield and as a tactical measure by some parties,” he told reporters at the Arab league in Cairo.
Four car bombs that struck mosques in Sanaa and the Houthi headquarters on Wednesday killed two people and wounded 60, a medical source told state news agency Saba on Thursday.
Coming on the eve of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the bombings were claimed by Islamic State.
Saudi Arabia sees a growing Iranian influence in the Arabian Peninsula, but the coalition has yet to reverse the Houthis’ control over the capital and upper hand in battles against opponents nationwide.
The sectarian-tinged conflict, pitting the Shi’ite Muslim Houthis against mostly Sunni tribes and militias in the country’s south and east, has given Sunni militant groups al Qaeda and Islamic State greater space to maneuver.
The country also faces a humanitarian crisis as many areas are caught between the warring sides. A near blockade imposed by the coalition has cut off supplies of food, fuel and medicine.
Medical sources in the frontline southern city of Aden said around 20 people, including a doctor, died of dengue fever in the Crater district on Wednesday, amid a spreading outbreak caused by poor sanitation and lack of water.
The U.N. agency OCHA said on Wednesday that 19 of Yemen’s 22 provinces faced a food crisis or an emergency. “Yemen desperately needs a pause in fighting,” it said.
The country previously imported the majority of fuel and 90 percent for its population of 26 million, most of it by sea, but the alliance has maintained a blockade in a bid to cut off arms supplies to rebel forces.
More than 2,600 civilians and combatants have been killed since the conflict began.
Writing by Noah Browning; Editing by Dominic Evans and John Stonestreet