Neighboring Oman seeks to end more than two months of fighting that had killed nearly 2,000 people by mediating talks between U.S. officials and representatives of the Houthi group.
Political sources in Oman confirmed on Monday that diplomats in Yemen’s neutral neighbor were brokering the talks between Houthi and U.S. officials at a luxury hotel in the capital Muscat aimed at finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
Independent politicians in Sanaa said the talks have succeeded in narrowing gaps between the Houthis and the exiled government to pave the way for eventual United Nations-backed negotiations in Geneva.
“There’s progress in the talks toward an agreement on a long truce and reviving political dialogue,” one politician told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Oman is the only member of the six-country Gulf Cooperation Council not taking part in the military campaign in Yemen, and has played a role as a peacemaker in the strife-torn region.
An Arab alliance has been bombing the fighters since late March in a bid to restore Yemen’s exiled president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, currently in exile in Saudi Arabia.
The Sunni Muslim states see the Houthis as a proxy for the influence of archrival Iran in impoverished Yemen.
The United States, top ally to the world’s number 1 oil exporter Saudi Arabia, has provided the kingdom with weapons and intelligence during its war against the Houthis.
Previous plans for talks in Switzerland were indefinitely postponed amid objections by the Riyadh-based exile government, which wants the Houthis to quit Yemen’s main cities and recognize Hadi’s authority before speaking to them.
The Houthis want a ceasefire as precondition for talks, and the Yemeni politicians say the U.N. envoy has made progress toward an agreement on a five-week ceasefire and the release by the Houthis of several detained pro-Hadi figures – including the defense minister and the president’s brother.
Saudi planes and artillery on Monday bombed the Houthis’ northern stronghold province of Saada bordering the kingdom.
The Houthis, who swept into Yemen’s capital Sanaa in September and fanned out across the country, say they are winning a revolution against corrupt officials and hardline Sunni militants.
Air strikes pounded military positions aligned with the Houthis in Sanaa on Sunday, and residents reported the sounds of constant explosions and anti-aircraft fire continuing into Monday.
Warplanes also dropped bombs on groups of Houthi fighters on the outskirts of Aden, a bastion of support for president Hadi and scene of heavy street fighting between the militiamen and local fighters for over two months.
A near-blockade of Yemeni skies and ports by the Arab coalition has led to severe shortages of food and fuel to its 25 million people, and aid groups have warned that the continuation of fighting could deepen the humanitarian crisis.
Famine Early Warning Systems, a monitoring group focusing on hunger, said on Monday that food price increases and lack of income in the war-torn country could soon push remote areas of Yemen into emergency.
“Due to the continued impact of ongoing shocks, food security outcomes are likely to deteriorate over the coming months,” the group said in a statement.
The Local Rescue Committee, a Yemeni humanitarian group in the southern province on Dhalea near Aden, warned on Monday that residents in the area were suffering.
“We’re calling for emergency aid to alleviate the disastrous humanitarian situation for a quarter of a million people in the province,” an official in the group told Reuters.
“Food, fuel and electricity are in short supply while sickness is spreading due to poor sanitation and stopped rubbish collection, meanwhile Dhalea is cut off by Houthi militias from resupply in every direction,” the official added.