Yemen's Houthis in Saudi for talks on ending war: sources

A Houthi militant carries his weapon in Yemen's capital Sanaa, February 18, 2016. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

By Mohammed Ghobari CAIRO (Reuters) - A delegation from the Houthi movement is in Saudi Arabia for talks on ending Yemen's war, two senior officials said, in what appeared to be the most serious attempt to date to end the conflict. The visit is the first of its kind since the war began in March last year between Iran-allied Houthi forces, and an Arab military coalition led by Saudi Arabia, Iran's main regional rival. The visit began on Monday at the invitation of Saudi authorities, following a week of secret preparatory talks, said the two senior officials from the administrative body that runs parts of Yemen controlled by the Houthis. About 6,000 people, half of them civilians, have died in the fighting in Yemen, raising fears of a wider regional confrontation between Shi'ite power Iran and Sunni kingdom Saudi Arabia. Underlining the regional rifts, a senior Iranian military official signaled on Tuesday that Iran could send military advisers to Yemen to help the Houthis. The Houthi delegation in Saudi Arabia is headed by Mohammed Abdel-Salam, the Houthis' main spokesman and a senior adviser to Houthi leader, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, the officials said. Abdel-Salam previously led Houthi delegates in talks in Oman that paved the way for U.N.-sponsored talks in Switzerland last year. A spokesman for the Saudi-led Arab coalition that has been fighting to restore Yemen's President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to power since last year could not immediately be reached for comment on the reported talks. A spokesman for the Saudi foreign ministry could also not immediately be reached. Two members of the Houthi-run Revolutionary Committee, which administers parts of the country controlled by the group, said the talks were taking place. A regional diplomat who follows Yemen confirmed that "there were direct contacts and talks between Saudis and Houthis". The Houthi visit coincides with an apparent lull in the fighting on the Saudi-Yemeni border, one of the bloodiest fronts in the conflict, and in Arab coalition air strikes on the Yemeni capital Sanaa. Although the Houthis' al-Masirah news channel has continued to report attacks on what it calls "the Saudi-American forces of aggression" inside Yemen, including a rocket attack on Monday, it has not reported any operations on the border since March 1. "I also know that there were no new clashes or hostile movements on the Saudi-Yemeni border during the last few days," said a senior regional diplomat who follows Yemen. Between Feb. 4 and Feb. 26, al-Masirah reported daily military operations against Saudi frontier positions and towns by the Houthis and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, including sniper attacks, mortar bombardments, ambushes and infiltrations. The last coalition airstrike on Sanaa was also about a week ago, according to the city's residents. (Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy in Dubai and Angus McDowall in Riyadh, writing by Sami Aboudi, Editing by William Maclean and Jeremy Gaunt)