U.N. diplomat pushes to hold Yemen talks, Arab air strikes pound Houthis

By Mohammed Ghobari

By Mohammed Ghobari SANAA (Reuters) - Efforts to coax Yemen's warring factions into talks have made some progress, officials said on Monday, as warplanes from a Saudi-led coalition mounted more air strikes on the country's dominant Houthi militia. An Arab alliance has been bombing the Houthis since March 26 in a bid to restore exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to power. The Sunni Muslim states regard the Houthis as a threat to the stability of Yemen, which flanks the world's top oil exporter Saudi Arabia. Political sources in Oman confirmed on Monday that diplomats were brokering talks between U.S. and Houthi envoys in the capital Muscat aimed at finding a peaceful resolution to a conflict that has killed over 2,000 people since March. Oman added on Monday that it had located two missing foreign citizens - an American and a Singaporean -- in Yemen who were reported in Arab media on Sunday as being held by Houthis, and evacuated them to Muscat after coordination with "the relevant authorities in Yemen", the state news agency said. Three more U.S. citizens, two of Yemeni and one of Somali origin, are in Houthi custody, said an official in Sanaa, now controlled by the Houthis and allies of ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Independent politicians in Sanaa said the new diplomacy had 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 a record as a peacemaker in the strife-torn region. The United Nations envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, has also achieved headway towards convening talks in Geneva, Yemeni government spokesman Rajeh Badi said. He said progress was made on "the date, agenda and framework for the Geneva talks and the parties that attend the meeting" and that a formal announcement was expected within hours. Ould Cheikh Ahmed was in the Saudi capital Riyadh for talks with Yemeni President Hadi, his deputy, Vice President Khaled Bahah, and other political figures. Before that, he held discussions with Houthi leaders in Sanaa. Previous plans for talks in Switzerland were postponed due to objections by the Riyadh-based Yemeni government, which wants the Houthis to quit Yemen's main cities and recognize Hadi's authority before speaking to them. The United States, the main ally of Saudi Arabia, has provided the kingdom with weapons and intelligence during its war against the Houthis. The Houthis want a ceasefire as a 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. UNRELENTING AIR RAIDS Saudi planes and artillery on Monday bombed the Houthis' northern stronghold province of Saada, bordering the kingdom. The Houthis, who swept into Sanaa in September and fanned out across the country, say they are winning a revolution against corrupt officials and hardline Sunni militants. Air strikes hit military positions aligned with the Houthis in Sanaa on Sunday, and residents reported the sounds of explosions and anti-aircraft fire continuing into Monday. Warplanes also dropped bombs on Houthi fighters on the outskirts of the southern port city of Aden, a bastion of support for Hadi where there has been heavy ground fighting. A near-blockade of Yemeni skies and ports by the Arab coalition has wrought severe shortages of food and fuel for its 25 million people, and aid groups have warned that a prolongation 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 could soon push remote areas of the widely impoverished Arabian Peninsula country into emergency. The Local Rescue Committee, a Yemeni humanitarian group in the southern province of Dhalea, said residents were suffering. "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," a committee official said. (Reporting By Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa, Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden and Fatma Arimi in Muscat; Writing by Noah Browning; Editing by Mark Heinrich)