Top Yemen Houthi militiaman welcomes U.N. peace talks

The second-in-command of Yemen’s Shiite militia insisted they are ready to travel to Geneva for U.N. peace talks

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The second-in-command of Yemen’s Shiite militia on Wednesday assailed the Saudi-led airstrikes pounding his group’s positions and allied forces, but insisted they are ready to travel to Geneva for U.N.-mediated peace talks on ending the country’s civil war.

Mohammed al-Houthi, who heads the Houthi militia’s powerful Revolutionary Council, also told The Associated Press that exiled President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi derailed negotiations by demanding the rebels withdraw from territory they captured as a precondition for talks.

The Geneva talks had been previously postponed with no new date announced.

“They are putting pre-conditions to obstruct any talks that could lead the Yemeni people to a solution,” al-Houthi said, saying the Saudis and their coalition refused to stop their air campaign to allow for peace talks.

“Dialogue is the principle to us. There are no objections to talks,” al-Houthi said, but added: “What is happening today is the opposite. The coalition is the one that rejects the talks and work on foiling it.”

The Houthis began their advance in September, sweeping into the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, and taking over government ministries and other areas. They held top officials, including Hadi, under house arrest. Hadi and others later fled for Aden, then for Saudi Arabia as the rebels advanced, backed by forces loyal to former leader President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The Saudi-led coalition began its airstrikes March 26. Since then, the airstrikes and ground fighting have killed more than 1,000 civilians and displaced a half million people, according to the U.N.

The Saudis and Western powers accuse the Houthis of receiving military support from Shiite power Iran as part of a larger proxy war between the Sunni kingdom and the Islamic Republic across the Mideast. Tehran and the rebels deny the allegation, though Iran openly has sent humanitarian aid.

Al-Houthi met an AP correspondent near the Yemeni capital of Sanaa at lightly guarded house, bare of furniture except for cushions spread on the ground. Though being targeted in the Saudi-led air campaign, guards did not inspect visitors for weapons Wednesday, nor did they take away electronic devices and mobile phones that could be tracked.

Al-Houthi wore traditional Yemeni robes with a dagger thrust into his silk waistband and sat next to a Kalashnikov assault rifle as he spoke. He said that U.N. talks should start from where it ended, during last round of U.N.-mediated talks in Sanaa earlier this year while Houthis put Hadi under house arrest.

Those talks included the formation of a new government and parliament, including a presidential council. The only outstanding issue was the “whether to keep Hadi at the top of the presidential council,” al-Houthi said.

A presidential aide said late Tuesday that Hadi was willing to participate in the Geneva talks. The aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to brief reporters, did not mention any conditions.

Al-Houthi spoke Wednesday as the Saudi-led coalition launched new strikes on Houthi positions in Sanaa, rocking residential areas and sending panicked residents fleeing into basements. The strikes, as well as Saudi-led air and sea blockade, have caused food, water and medicine shortages, sparking a humanitarian crisis in the Arab world’s poorest country.

“The 69-day assault pushed the country to disaster,” al-Houthi said. “Yemen is facing a real genocide.”

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