As Saudi-led fighters bomb Yemen, Houthi rebels to meet US officials (+video)
Houthi militias allied with the country's former dictator hold sway over large swathes of Yemen, and have stood firm against a Saudi-led bombing campaign launched in March. Several US citizens are reportedly being held by Houthis.
Officials from Yemen's Houthi insurgent group are said to be meeting with US representatives in Oman, in an apparent effort to resolve months of fighting that have ravaged the country.
“We have been informed that there are meetings, at American request, and that a private American plane carried the Houthis to Muscat,” Rajeh Badi, a spokesman for Yemen’s government in exile in Riyadh, told Reuters.
If confirmed, the talks would be the first held between the US and the Houthis since the start of the fighting in March, when a coalition headed by Saudi Arabia launched a bombing campaign against the rebels.
The rebels have seized large swathes of Yemen and driven out the Saudi- and US-backed government of Abdu Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The Houthis, a Shiite minority sect, had accused President Hadi of failing to implement power-sharing agreements he had promised when he took over from dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012. Saudi Arabia fears that the Houthi advance is being pushed by arch-rival Iran, which has denied providing military aid to the Houthis. Nearly 2,000 people have died in the fighting since then, according to UN figures.
The Saudis continued their bombing campaign on Monday, striking several targets, including the Houthi stronghold of Saada in the north and the port town of Aden in the south, according to Reuters.
The US is not directly involved in the fighting, but has provided intelligence to the Saudi-led coalition of Sunni Arab states. Reuters notes that Oman, the talks' host and a frequent regional peacemaker, is not part of the coalition.
The Yemeni government-in-exile said it was not part of the dialog; neither the US nor the Houthis commented on the talks.
The Washington Post reported over the weekend that several US citizens are believed to be held by the Houthis, and that discussions to free them have faltered.
U.S. officials said three of the prisoners worked in private sector jobs and that a fourth, whose occupation is unknown, has dual U.S.-Yemeni citizenship. The officials said none of the four were employees of the U.S. government.
The Washington Post is withholding some details about the prisoners at the request of U.S. officials and relatives who cited concerns for their safety.
A fifth U.S. citizen, Sharif Mobley, is also in Houthi custody, in connection with terrorism related charges brought against him by the previous government more than five years ago. Mobley’s incarceration has been previously reported.
The Post writes that the Americans are believed to be held in a prison in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital and a frequent target of coalition airstrikes. The US believes that the prisoners are not being mistreated, though Sharif Mobley is said to be showing signs of mental instability after a reported deal to release him fell through.
A representative of a nongovernmental organization that has been in touch with Mr. Mobley says that the Saudis have struck several times the location where he is being held, but that “given the established Saudi record of hitting the same spot multiple times, there’s a high risk Sharif will be hit again.”
Agence France-Presse notes that not only Americans are being held hostage in Yemen. A video posted on YouTube shows French national Isabelle Prime, who was kidnapped in February, asking the French and Yemeni presidents to secure her release. The identities of Ms. Prime's kidnappers have not been publicized.