No breakthrough in Yemen peace talks, but rivals will meet again

Bern (Switzerland) (AFP) - Yemen's warring parties on Sunday wrapped up peace talks in Switzerland with no major breakthrough, but vowed to meet again next month, even as fighting raged on the ground.

The six days of closed-door meetings were strained by repeated violations of a ceasefire aimed at calming tensions between pro-government forces and the Iran-backed Shiite Huthi rebels who control Yemen's capital.

UN special envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed announced in Bern that a new round of talks would be held on January 14 at a location yet to be decided.

The head of the government negotiating team, Foreign Minister Abdel Malak al-Mekhlafi, said the much-violated ceasefire will be extended for seven days after it officially expires on Monday.

"The truce will be extended for seven more days and will then be automatically extended if it is respected by the other party," he told reporters, referring to the Huthis.

A halt to the violence is sorely needed in the Arabian Peninsula's poorest nation, where the UN says fighting since March has killed thousands of people and left around 80 percent of the population needing humanitarian aid.

Mekhlafi said the decision to extend the truce, at the request of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, has been communicated to the United Nations.

He also called for the release of five prisoners held by the Huthis including the defence minister, Major-General Mahmoud al-Subaihi.

- Confidence-building measures -

The talks in Switzerland, held in a remote part of Bern canton to keep media at bay, ended without any major steps forward, and were undermined by daily breaches of the ceasefire.

Missiles have been fired from rebel-held areas, even slamming down on the Saudi side of the border with deadly consequences, while government forces have seized several areas back from the rebels.

"Unfortunately there were numerous violations," Ould Cheikh Ahmed told a news conference, adding that the UN had called for "a ceasefire which is not time-bound".

The parties had meanwhile agreed to a range of "confidence-building measures", he said.

These included an agreement "in principle" to release all prisoners, he said, while acknowledging that such an exchange would probably not happen before a sustainable ceasefire had been agreed.

But, he stressed, "I am optimistic about a full prisoner release and that a full prisoner release will take place very soon."

The two sides had also agreed on the need to "lift all forms of blockade and allow safe, rapid and unhindered access for humanitarian supplies to all affected governorates", according to the final statement.

The conflict has escalated dramatically since Saudi-led air strikes against the rebels began in March, with more than 5,800 people killed and more than 27,000 wounded since then, according to UN figures.

- Multiple ceasefire violations -

The Huthis, a Shiite minority from Yemen's north, seized the capital Sanaa last year and then advanced south to the second city of Aden, forcing Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia in March.

Following territorial gains by loyalist troops backed by the Saudi-led coalition, Hadi returned to Aden in November after six months in exile in the neighbouring oil-rich kingdom.

There have been multiple violations of the ceasefire which began with the peace talks on Tuesday.

Loyalists on Sunday attacked rebel positions in the northern Jawf province after seizing the provincial capital two days earlier from the Huthi rebels, pro-government militia sources said.

Coalition air strikes hit a rebel rocket launch pad in Jawf, rebel positions in the north of the western Hodeida province and an army camp in Sanaa.

Rebels, meanwhile, claimed to have caused casualties and equipment damage in a rocket attack on a coalition military base in Marib province east of Sanaa, their website reported.

Saudi Arabia said a missile fired from Yemen on Saturday struck the border city of Najran, killing three civilians -- a Saudi and two Indian workers.

At least 68 people were killed in fighting on Thursday near the northern town of Haradh, which loyalists seized the same day, military and tribal sources said.