(adds Saleh party, Saudi and diplomats’ reactions)
By Noah Browning and Mohammed Ghobari
DUBAI/SANAA, July 23 (Reuters) - Representatives of Yemen’s ex-leader Ali Abdullah Saleh have held rare meetings with diplomats from his adversaries the United States, United Arab Emirates and Britain, a member of his party said on Thursday.
Diplomats and Yemeni officials confirmed the meetings but were careful to play down their significance.
“There are negotiations in Cairo between the leaders of the Congress party and diplomats from the United States, Britain and the UAE in order to find a peaceful solution to the crisis in Yemen,” Adel Shuja, a leader of Saleh’s Congress party, told Reuters.
“These negotiations have made significant progress so far.”
Saleh’s loyalists in Yemen’s army are a key force in the country’s civil war and the talks are the first reported between him and the key member of the Arab coalition opposing him.
The UAE has been bombing Saleh’s allies for weeks and the negotiations coincide with major gains in the country’s south by Emirati and Saudi-backed forces.
An official statement by the ex-president’s party later on Thursday denied any meeting and a party official tweeted that Saleh was opposed to quitting the country.
Two Western diplomats contacted by Reuters played down the significance of the contacts, saying they came as part of regular discussions with Yemeni officials.
Saleh’s close links to the Houthis and the close western and Emirati ties with the Arab coalition’s main force, Saudi Arabia, render the unusual contacts highly sensitive.
Asked about the meetings during a visit to Cairo, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir said he supported any effort to resolve Yemen’s war peacefully.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the whole coalition realises the solution to the crisis is a political solution and supports any efforts put forward to convince the different sides to accept the basis upon which a political solution can be built,” Al-Jubeir said.
It was not immediately clear whether forces linked to Saleh had pulled back from battlefields around the strategic port of Aden, which local fighters supported by Gulf states seized in a surprise offensive this week from Yemen’s dominant Houthi group after months of stalemate.
A wily political operator who played Yemen’s rival armed and tribal groups off each other for 33 years, Saleh enjoyed Gulf support until “Arab Spring” unrest forced him to resign in 2012.
An ousted but still influential figure in Yemen’s security forces, the ex-leader forged an unlikely alliance with old foes in the Iran-allied Houthi militia, which seized the capital Sanaa in September and pressed south toward Aden alongside Saleh forces, triggering the Arab intervention on March 26.
Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari and Noah Browning; Editing by William Maclean and Tom Heneghan