US 'in talks with Houthis' in bid to end Yemen war: Official

Top US official says Washington is in talks with Houthi rebels to end the war, the first such contact in four years.

    The negotiations open a direct channel between the Trump administration and the Houthis [File: Abduljabbar Zeyad/Reuters]
    The negotiations open a direct channel between the Trump administration and the Houthis [File: Abduljabbar Zeyad/Reuters]

    The United States is in talks with Yemen's Houthi rebels, a top US official has said, in what appears to be a bid to end the five-year war in the Arab world's most impoverished country.

    "We are narrowly focused on trying to end the war in Yemen," US assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, David Schenker, told reporters on Thursday during a visit to Saudi Arabia.

    "We are also having talks to the extent possible with the Houthis to try and find a mutually accepted negotiated solution to the conflict," he said, according to the AFP news agency.

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    Senior Houthi official Hamid Assem told AFP he could neither confirm nor deny whether the rebels were in talks with Washington.

    "That the United States says they are talking to us is a great victory for us and proves that we are right," he said.

    While no further details were released, the talks mark the first contact between the US and the Houthis in over four years.

    In June 2015, officials from the former US President Barack Obama's administration held brief talks with Houthi leaders to convince them to attend United Nations-sponsored peace talks in Geneva.

    But the Geneva conference and further rounds of negotiations have failed to bring an end to the conflict, which has killed tens of thousands of people and brought millions of Yemenis to the brink of famine, forcing the UN to call it the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

    In December last year, the UN-brokered talks in Stockholm resulted in an agreement that many hoped would be the first step to peace in the country, but little progress has been made since.

    In May, Yemen's internationally recognised President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi accused the UN's special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, of siding with the Houthis, further diminishing hopes of peace.

    Last week, the US-based Wall Street Journal reported that Washington was trying to convince Saudi Arabia to take part in secret talks with Houthi leaders in Oman in hopes of brokering a peace deal.

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    War may tear Yemen apart

    The war in Yemen broke out in 2014, when the Houthis launched an offensive against the Yemeni government and seized capital Sanaa and much of the country's north.

    The offensive sparked a Saudi-led military intervention the following March, with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the exiled Yemeni government as Riyadh's allies.

    The US, the United Kingdom and France have offered support and sold weapons to the Saudi-led coalition, with the US specifically offering intelligence and logistical aid. 

    The UN has accused the coalition forces and the Houthi fighters of war crimes. On Tuesday, the UN said western governments who provided military support may also be complicit in the crimes.

    Legislators in the US and the UK have mounted opposition to their government's involvement in the conflict.

    In April, US President Donald Trump vetoed a bipartisan resolution that would have forced the US military to end its support to the coalition forces.

    Meanwhile, the Yemen war has grown more complex as alliances have shifted.

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    In 2017, a southern separatist movement started with the creation of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which calls for autonomy or secession for south Yemen.

    Fighters from the STC movement, which is aligned with the UAE, have since taken up arms against the Saudi-backed Yemeni forces, opening a new front in the war that threatens to tear the country apart.

    The Saudi-backed government was recently removed from its interim capital, Aden, by the STC fighters.

    SOURCE: News agencies