Washington in talks with Yemeni rebels, US official says

Anuj Chopra
US Assistant Secretary of Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker (2nd-R) is shown purported Iranian weapons seized by Saudi forces from Yemen's Huthi rebels, during a visit to a military base in Al-kharj in central Saudi Arabia, on Thursday (AFP Photo/Fayez Nureldine)

Al Kharj (Saudi Arabia) (AFP) - Washington is in talks with Yemen's Iran-aligned Huthi rebels in a bid to end the country's war, a top US official said on Thursday, the first such contact in more than four years.

The negotiations open a direct channel between President Donald Trump's administration and the Huthis amid the threat of a broader regional conflict with Iran.

It also comes as the rebels have stepped up missile and drone attacks on neighbouring Saudi Arabia, a key US ally which heads a military coalition against the Huthis.

"We are narrowly focused on trying to end the war in Yemen," Assistant Secretary of Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker told reporters during a visit to Al-Kharj air base near the Saudi capital Riyadh.

"We are also having talks to the extent possible with the Huthis to try and find a mutually acceptable negotiated solution to the conflict."

Schenker gave no further details on the talks, which mark a renewed effort to end a complex conflict that has left tens of thousands dead and sparked what the United Nations labels the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

Senior Huthi official Hamid Assem told AFP he could neither confirm nor deny 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.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Washington was preparing for direct talks with the rebels and that its negotiating team would be led by Christopher Henzel, who became the Trump administration's first ambassador to Yemen in April.

A State Department official said Thursday that "the US ambassador to Yemen and other US diplomats talk to all Yemenis to further US objectives in the country".

"We are focused on supporting a comprehensive political agreement that will end the conflict," the official said.

- 'Consultations with Saudis' -

The Huthis seized Yemen's capital Sanaa and much of the country's north in 2014, sparking a Saudi-led military intervention the following March.

US officials from the administration of former president Barack Obama held brief talks with Huthi leaders in June 2015 to convince them to attend UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva.

But the Geneva conference and further rounds of talks have failed to bring an end to the conflict, which has pushed Yemen to the brink of famine.

Fatima Abo Alasrar, a scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, told AFP that talks with the Huthis were not taking place "in a vacuum" but were "most likely after consultations with the Saudis".

Riyadh had reportedly hoped for a quick win against the Huthis, but instead waded into a quagmire that has cost it billions of dollars and hurt its reputation, while devastating the Arab world's poorest country.

The Riyadh-led coalition, assisted by Western powers including the US, has struggled to oust a ragtag but highly motivated tribal militia that specialises in guerrilla tactics.

- Political intervention -

The rebels, for their part, have exposed the limits of Saudi Arabia's military might, menacing its cities with what Riyadh says are Iranian-supplied weapons.

"The Huthis have been sending a barrage of drones and ballistic missiles towards vital Saudi installations after a recent spike in US-Iran tensions," Alasrar said.

"So the US appears to be intervening politically at this stage to assess all possible threats that can come from the region, and perhaps even issue its own threats if the Huthis will not comply."

At the Al-Kharj air base, Schenker was shown a display of what Saudi officials said were fragments of missiles and unmanned drones intercepted in recent months.

"The United States is working to try and prevent the smuggling of weapons to the Huthis," Schenker said while condemning the attacks on Saudi Arabia.

"That's a priority for us."

In a new front that threatens to tear Yemen apart, the Saudi-backed government was recently ousted from its interim capital Aden by southern separatists -- propped up by top Saudi regional ally the United Arab Emirates.

The feud has exposed simmering divisions within the anti-Huthi alliance that analysts say undermines their joint campaign against the Huthis.