New UN envoy looks to revive talks as airstrikes hit Yemen capital

Friday 24/04/2015
Millions of people have been affected

SANAA - A new UN envoy was looking to kickstart peace talks in Yemen as battles raged Sunday between Iran-backed rebels and pro-government forces a month after the launch of Saudi-led air strikes.

The Shiite Huthi rebels, who have overrun large parts of the country and forced President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi to flee abroad, have demanded an end to the air strikes as a condition for UN-sponsored talks.

But the raids continued on Sunday, hitting the rebel-held presidential palace in Sanaa and anti-government positions in the main southern city of Aden, military sources and witnesses said.

Fighting also intensified in Marib province, east of the capital, where Sunni tribes and pro-Hadi fighters clashed with Huthis and allied forces.

A military official said the presidential complex in Sanaa was targeted as reinforcements were being prepared to send to oil-rich Marib.

The United Nations on Saturday confirmed Mauritanian diplomat Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed as the new special envoy to Yemen, replacing Moroccan Jamal Benomar, who resigned last week following what diplomats described as sharp criticism of his performance by Gulf countries.

Ould Cheikh Ahmed "will work closely with the members of the United Nations Security Council, the Gulf Cooperation Council, governments in the region and other partners, as well as the United Nations country team for Yemen," a UN statement said.

Former strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, who still holds sway over army units allied with the Shiite rebels, late Friday urged the Huthis to heed UN demands to withdraw from territory they have seized.

US Secretary of State John Kerry also called on anti-government forces to enter into political dialogue to end a conflict that the United Nations says has killed more than 1,000 people since late March.

The fighting has raised fears that Yemen could become a front in a proxy war between Sunni-ruled Gulf monarchies and Shiite Iran.

Tehran rejects accusations that it armed the rebels and has presented a peace plan to the UN calling for a ceasefire and the formation of a unity government.

A US aircraft carrier headed to Yemeni waters last week to monitor an Iranian convoy that had raised suspicions. It redeployed on Friday after the convoy turned back, Pentagon officials said.

The coalition has kept up air strikes days after announcing its campaign was entering a new phase aimed at resuming the political process, delivering aid and fighting "terrorism".

Marib has been the scene of days of deadly clashes between rebels and fighters loyal to Hadi.

Sunni tribes and pro-Hadi troops battled Shiite Huthi rebels and their allies in Marib's Sarwah district, through which Yemen's main oil export pipeline passes, tribal sources said.

The 435-kilometre (270-mile) line links Marib's Safir oilfields with the Ras Isa terminal on the Red Sea coast, and control of it has been a key goal for the rebels and their allies.

Tribal sources said 90 rebels were killed in clashes and air strikes in Marib. Eight pro-Hadi fighters were also killed in fighting, they said.

In other fighting, local officials in Taez, southwest of Sanaa, said intense clashes had left casualties, among them civilians.

In the southern city of Daleh, coalition planes dropped medical aid to pro-Hadi fighters, after the rebels prevented a convoy of humanitarian organisations from carrying aid into the city, local officials said.

The UN says millions of people have been affected by the conflict and are struggling to access health care, water, food and fuel.

It estimates that at least 551 of those killed since late March were civilians, including at least 115 children.

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