Yemenis attack Saudi border as peace talks momentum gathers
SANAA - Forces loyal to Yemen's former president attacked "several locations" on the Saudi border, the Saudi-led coalition said on Saturday, as momentum gathered towards UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva.
Houthi Shia fighters, who are allied with forces loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, confirmed on Friday they would attend talks in Geneva aimed at ending weeks of war that has cost more than 2,000 lives.
The Geneva meeting, provisionally set for 14 June, would be the first significant effort to stop the fighting, which has led to what the United Nations called a catastrophic humanitarian situation.
Yemen's government exiled in Riyadh also said it would attend.
The Saudi-led coalition, which has been bombing the Houthis and their allies for 10 weeks, early Saturday reported the second major ground attack of the war against Saudi territory.
"The Saudi armed forces today were able to repel an attack from the Yemeni side targeting several locations in Jazan and Najran," a coalition statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency said, referring to two Saudi border districts.
The attack, supported by Houthis, was coordinated by elements of the Republican Guard loyal to Saleh and sparked an hours-long battle in which four Saudis lost their lives, the coalition said, adding that "dozens from the enemy were killed".
Tensions have escalated between Riyadh and regional rival Iran because of the months-long fighting in Yemen, while rights groups have expressed concerns about the extent of civilian casualties.
"We accepted the invitation of the United Nations to go to the negotiating table in Geneva without preconditions," said Daifallah al-Shami, a senior member of the Houthis’ political wing.
Speaking to AFP, he added that the Houthis "will not accept conditions" from other parties.
Saleh last week renewed calls for talks in Geneva between the Yemeni parties, as well as negotiations between Yemenis and Saudi Arabia.
Ezzedine al-Isbahi, information minister of the exiled Yemeni government, said it would also send a delegation to Switzerland.
He told AFP the meeting would involve "consultations on implementing Resolution 2216", which the Security Council passed in April imposing an arms embargo on the Houthis and demanded they relinquish seized territory.
The negotiations would try to secure a ceasefire agreement on a Houthi withdrawal plan and increased deliveries of humanitarian aid, according to diplomats who attended the closed-door Security Council briefing.
Since overrunning Sanaa in September, the Huthis have seized much of the country, prompting the bombing campaign in support of exiled President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.
Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia feared the Houthis would take over all of Yemen and move it into the orbit of Shia Iran.
The Security Council this week heard a report from new UN aid chief Stephen O'Brien who described Yemen's humanitarian crisis as "catastrophic", with 20 million civilians - 80 percent of the population - in need of aid.
Medical and military sources said at least 21 people have died in violent combat since Thursday in the Aden area, while there were intense coalition air raids against Daleh and Shabwa provinces.
The aid group Action Against Hunger reiterated its demand for the coalition to lift its air, land and sea blockade of Yemen, "of which civilians are the first victims".
Confirmation that the government and Houthis would both send delegations to Switzerland follows a flurry of diplomacy after the UN was forced to abandon plans to convene talks last week.
In line with Resolution 2216, Hadi's government refused to attend unless the Houthis pulled back from at least some of the territory they have seized.
On Tuesday, Washington said Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson met Houthi representatives in neighbouring Oman to try to persuade them to join the proposed Geneva conference.
Patterson also held talks with Hadi, who fled Yemen in March when the Houthis moved on the port city of Aden, which had become his sanctuary.
The US meeting with the Houthis, who have boycotted talks in Riyadh and insisted on a neutral venue, followed a mission to Muscat last week by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.