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Yemen ceasefire set for eve of peace talks in Switzerland

A ceasefire in Yemen is set to begin on Monday at midnight, says government delegate
Yemeni troops parade in west of the city of Marib on 12 December 2015 (AFP)

A ceasefire in Yemen is set to begin on Monday at midnight, on the eve of UN-brokered peace talks in Switzerland, a government delegate at the negotiations told AFP.

Mueen Abdulmalek, a member of the government delegation, said: "We hope the militias will commit to the ceasefire this time," referring to Houthi militiamen and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen.

A presidency source confirmed the truce would begin at midnight local time (2100 GMT). 

However, on Monday morning a top Saudi commander and an Emirati officer were killed during the Saudi-led coalition's operations against the Houthis, the Riyadh-led alliance announced in a statement.

Saudi Colonel Abdullah al-Sahyan and Emirati officer Sultan al-Kitbi were killed at dawn "while they were carrying out their duties in supervising operations to liberate Taiz" province in Yemen's southwest, the official SPA news agency said.

On Saturday, the Shia Houthi militiamen said they will only commit to a ceasefire if loyalists and the Saudi-led coalition supporting them end their "aggression".

"We will stop when the aggression against us stops," Mohammed Abdulsalam, spokesman for the Ansarullah party, told a news conference in the Houthi-held Yemeni capital before heading to Switzerland for the talks. 

"Based on what has been agreed, there will be a halt to the aggression on 14 December  which will be confirmed within 24 hours before we begin a serious and positive dialogue," he said.

Foreign Minister Abdulmalek al-Mekhlafi told AFP "there is an agreement on a ceasefire to begin Monday". 

"From our side, we wish a ceasefire would start even from now," said Mekhlafi, adding that he hoped the Houthis would commit to it.

UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed said this week that Riyadh had promised to observe the ceasefire and pause its aerial assault on rebel positions during talks.

A swift halt to the fighting was imperative for those caught up in the conflict, he said.

Escalation ahead of talks

But Saudi-led coalition strikes and clashes between loyalists and Houthi militiamen intensified across several parts of Yemen on Saturday, military sources said.

"The rebels are attacking loyalist positions as the consultations approach," one of them said. "They are trying to make gains on the ground during this period."

The coalition pounded rebel positions in the eastern oil-rich Marib province and on the west coast in strategic Taiz province overlooking the Red Sea, military and Houthi militia sources told AFP.

In Daleh, 12 militiamen and three pro-government fighters were killed as loyalists advanced on the province's second-largest city Damt, seized by the Houthis in November, military sources said.

Loyalists also advanced in Marib, taking several positions in western parts of the province, the sources said.

But late Friday, Houthi militiamen recaptured the Shuraija region of Taiz, military sources said. It links the province with Lahj in the south, home to the key al-Anad air base where Arab coalition troops are deployed. 

Four pro-government forces and three Houthis died in the fighting, the sources added.

Women delegates

The talks are to be held for an indefinite period of time and away from the media in an undisclosed Swiss location.

They will focus on four main areas, including the terms for a permanent ceasefire and the withdrawal of armed groups from the areas under their control, a reference mainly to the Houthis. 

Participants will include Houthis, representatives of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi's internationally recognised government and officials from the General People's Congress party headed by Saleh.

Renegade troops loyal to Saleh have been fighting alongside the Houthis, who took control of Sanaa in September 2014 and swept south. 

All three delegations have announced the names of their envoys to the talks.

Abdulsalam will lead the Houthis and Mekhalfi will lead the government delegation, while the GPC delegation will be headed by the party's secretary general, Aref al-Zoka.  

The government and the GPC have each included a woman in their delegations, as per a UN request.

But women playing leading political roles are unheard of among the conservative Shia Islamist Houthis.

The United Nations, citing data compiled from health facilities, says more than 5,800 people have been killed in Yemen, about half of them civilians, and more than 27,000 wounded since March.