Exiled Yemeni government rejects calls for peace talks as airstrikes continue

Government officials say the calls are 'unacceptable' after all the destruction caused by the Houthi rebel offensive.

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
People stand at the site of an airstrike in Sanaa, Yemen, on Sunday as fighting continues across the country.

Yemen's government in exile rejected a call for peace talks from former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and said a Saudi-backed bombing campaign would continue, dimming hopes for any prospect of a political solution to the fighting that is racking the country.

Mr. Saleh, a one-time enemy turned ally of the Houthi rebels currently vying for control of Yemen, called on Friday for talks to seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict. But Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyadh Yaseen said Sunday that "these calls are unacceptable after all the destruction Ali Abdullah Saleh has caused. There can be no place for Saleh in any future political talks."

Mr. Yaseen added that "Operation Decisive Storm has not ended," referring to the Saudi-organized airstrikes against the Houthis, and would continue until the Houthis had withdrawn, reports Reuters.

Yemen exploded into full-scale war last month when a Saudi-backed coalition launched a campaign of airstrikes against Houthi rebels after they seized control of the capital, Sanaa, and drove the US- and Saudi-backed government, led by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, into exile. 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 Saleh in 2012.

According to the UN's former peace envoy to Yemen, the air campaign's launch came just as a political solution was within reach, the Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday. Jamal Benomar, a Moroccan diplomat, told the Journal that "When this campaign started ... the Yemenis were close to a deal that would institute power-sharing with all sides, including the Houthis."

This round of U.N.-brokered talks — which began in January and included 12 political and tribal factions — represented a crucial part of a mission to install a unified government in Yemen, the poorest Arab country and home to al Qaeda’s most dangerous offshoot.

The Houthi rebels, who have overrun significant parts of the country in the past eight months, had agreed to remove their militias from the cities they were occupying under the deal that had been taking shape. The U.N. had worked out details of a new government force to replace them, Mr. Benomar said.

In exchange, Western-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who has since fled the country, would have been part of an executive body that would run the country temporarily, Mr. Benomar said.

But the launch of Decisive Storm ended that possibility, Mr. Benomar said, and hardened the Houthis against any government role for Hadi. The Journal notes that while other Yemeni power brokers agree that progress was being made on a deal, they differ with Benomar on how close it was to implementation.

Saudi Arabia said last week that it was unilaterally ending Decisive Storm, claiming it had "achieved its goals" in the region. But The Christian Science Monitor reported that the pause was likely due to Hadi's concerns that the bombing campaign was extracting too high a humanitarian toll in the country, and eroding support for his regime. The World Health Organization estimates that 1,000 people have died since the campaign's launch in March, though it is not clear how many of those who died are civilians.

But the airstrikes have continued in earnest, with four strikes on Sunday in and around Sanaa, Agence France-Presse reports. The bombing appears to have been targeting Houthi reinforcements preparing to support rebels fighting in the oil-rich Marib province.

AFP also reports that Saudi Arabia began stationing members of its National Guard along its border with Yemen, "so as to confront any possible threats" according to the state news agency. The National Guard is a force parallel with and a counterbalance to the regular Saudi Army, and is made up of tribal fighters loyal to the ruling family of Saud.

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