Yemen rebels, govt agree to peace talks

Sanaa (AFP) - Huthi Shiite rebels and Yemen's exiled government agreed Friday to attend UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva aimed at ending weeks of war that have cost more than 2,000 lives.

The Geneva meeting, provisionally set for June 14, would be the first significant effort to stop the fighting, which has led to what the United Nations called a catastrophic humanitarian situation.

A Saudi-led coalition has been bombing the Iran-backed rebels and their allies for 10 weeks, raising tensions between Riyadh and regional rival Iran, while rights groups have expressed concerns about the extent of civilian casualties.

"We accepted the invitation of the United Nations to go to the negotiating table in Geneva without preconditions," said Daifallah al-Shami, a senior member of the rebels' political wing.

Speaking to AFP, he added that the rebels "will not accept conditions" from other parties.

Ezzedine al-Isbahi, information minister of the Yemeni government exiled in the Saudi capital, said it would also send a delegation to Switzerland.

UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed told the Security Council Wednesday that the government would attend but that he was still in consultation with the rebels.

"The government agreed to participate in the Geneva talks," Isbahi told AFP.

He said the meeting would involve "consultations on implementing Resolution 2216" which the Security Council passed in April. It imposed an arms embargo on the Huthi rebels and demanded they relinquish seized territory.

The negotiations would try to secure a ceasefire, agreement on a Huthi withdrawal plan and increased deliveries of humanitarian aid, according to diplomats who attended the closed-door Security Council briefing.

- Millions need aid -

Since overrunning Sanaa in September, the Huthis have seized much of the country, prompting the bombing campaign in support of exiled President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.

Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia feared the Huthis would take over all of Yemen and move it into the orbit of Shiite Iran.

Pro-government forces have been fighting the rebels and their allies in a war the United Nations says has forced more than half a million people from their homes.

The Security Council this week heard a report from new UN aid chief Stephen O'Brien who described Yemen's humanitarian crisis as "catastrophic," with 20 million civilians -- 80 percent of the population -- in need of aid.

Confirmation that the government and rebels would both send delegations to Switzerland follows a flurry of diplomacy after the UN was forced to abandon plans to convene talks last week.

In line with Resolution 2216, Hadi's government refused to attend unless the rebels pulled back from at least some of the territory they have seized.

On Tuesday, Washington said Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson had met Huthi representatives in neighbouring Oman to try to persuade them to join the proposed Geneva conference.

Patterson also travelled to Saudi Arabia for talks with the kingdom's leaders as well as Hadi, who fled Yemen in March when the rebels moved on the port city of Aden, which had become his sanctuary.

UN envoy Ould Cheikh Ahmed met with Hadi this week after holding talks in rebel-held Sanaa.

The US meeting with the rebels, who have boycotted talks in Riyadh and insisted on a neutral venue, followed a mission to Muscat last week by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

A diplomat in Oman said the Huthis told the US they wanted a halt to the bombing and unrestricted access for deliveries of humanitarian aid.

While momentum builds towards the peace talks, killing continues on the ground.

Medical and military sources said at least 21 people have died in violent combat since Thursday in the Aden area, while there were intense coalition air raids against Daleh and Shabwa provinces.

The aid group Action Against Hunger reiterated its demand for the coalition to lift its air, land and sea blockade of Yemen, "of which civilians are the first victims".