Ex-Yemen leader urges rebel allies to heed UN, pull back

Ali Abdullah Saleh calls on Houthis to retreat from territories they seized in order to end Saudi airstrikes

Saudi soldiers stand on top of armored vehicles, on the border with Yemen at a military point in Najran, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, April 21, 2015. (AP/Hasan Jamali)
Saudi soldiers stand on top of armored vehicles, on the border with Yemen at a military point in Najran, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, April 21, 2015. (AP/Hasan Jamali)

Yemen’s influential former president urged his rebel allies Friday to heed UN demands to withdraw from territory seized in months of fighting so Saudi-led air strikes can end and reconciliation begin.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, who still holds sway over army units allied with Houthi rebels who now control large swaths of the country, had welcomed this month’s Security Council resolution as a way to “stop bloodshed” in Yemen.

More than 1,000 people have been killed in the fighting since late March, according to the United Nations, which said Friday at least 115 children were among the dead.

The conflict has sent tensions soaring between Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, which backs the Houthis, raising fears Yemen could become a new front in a proxy war between Middle East powers.

Saleh, in a statement read on his Yemen Today television channel, said: “I call on (the Houthis) to accept all UN Security Council decisions and to implement them in return for a halt in the coalition forces’ aggression.”

“I urge them and everyone — militias and al-Qaeda as well as militias loyal to (President Abd Rabbo Mansour) Hadi — to withdraw from all provinces, especially Aden,” the main southern city where fighting has raged between rival forces.

The Saudi-led coalition, which began an air war on rebels and their allies on March 26, announced an end to that campaign on Tuesday in favour of seeking a political solution, but strikes have continued.

US Secretary of State John Kerry Friday urged the rebels to come to the negotiating table and end the unrest in the Gulf nation.

“This has to be a two-way street,” he told reporters, adding: “We need the Houthi and we need those that can influence them to make sure that they are prepared to try to move… to the negotiating table.”

Saleh, who still heads the influential General People’s Congress party, called for UN-brokered Saudi-Yemeni talks to be held in Geneva.

He proposed that all provinces be handed over to “the army and security apparatus under the control of local authorities in each province” and called “on all parties without exception… to talk and show forgiveness”.

“I will forgive everybody in the interests of the nation,” he said.

With international pressure mounting for a political solution, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has announced plans to appoint Mauritanian diplomat Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed as his new envoy to Yemen.

He would replace Moroccan Jamal Benomar, accused by Gulf countries of having been duped by the Houthis, who held peace talks while pressing their offensive for more territory.

The Houthis swept into the capital in September from their northern stronghold and then advanced south on the major port of Aden, forcing President Hadi to flee to Riyadh last month.

The capital remains in their hands while al-Qaeda has exploited the instability to seize more territory in the largely lawless southeast.

Iran vehemently denies arming the rebels and has presented a peace plan to the UN calling for a ceasefire and the formation of a unity government.

On Friday, Tehran summoned Riyadh’s envoy to protest after warplanes allegedly turned back humanitarian aid flights headed for Yemen, whose airspace is controlled by the Saudi-led coalition.

Despite Iran’s denials of backing the rebels militarily, a US aircraft carrier and other warships have deployed off Yemen to track Iranian naval movements and prevent any possible arms deliveries.

On Thursday, a US official said a nine-ship Iranian convoy that had been heading for Yemen was “no longer on the same course”.

Meanwhile, coalition air strikes have continued unabated. Warplanes hit a camp housing rebels in third city Taez on Friday, residents said, after a night of clashes and raids throughout the country.

Aden also came under coalition fire as clashes between Hadi supporters and rebels raged until dawn, pro-government militiamen said.

Residents in the eastern province of Marib also reported overnight air strikes and clashes between local tribesmen and rebels.

Air raids on Friday struck rebel convoys, including tanks, in the southern Abyan province, leaving several dead and wounded, said pro-Hadi militiamen.

There were also strikes on nearby Daleh, local officials told AFP, adding that coalition warplanes destroyed a bridge linking the central province of Ibb and Shiite-majority Dhammar farther north to cut off rebel supplies.

The UN says millions have been affected by the Yemen conflict and are struggling to access healthcare, water, food and fuel.

“The toll on civilians has been immense,” UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen Johannes Van Der Klaauw said. The UN estimates Friday at least 551 of the people killed were civilians.

UNICEF representative Julien Harneis said there “are hundreds of thousands of children in Yemen who continue to live in the most dangerous circumstances, many waking up scared in the middle of the night to the sounds of bombing and gunfire”.

UNICEF said that of the 115 children killed, 64 died in air strikes, 26 were killed by unexploded ordnance and mines, 19 by gunshots and three by shelling. Another 172 children have been maimed.

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