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Shuttle diplomacy begins in Yemen peace talks after Houthis arrive

Rival Yemeni delegations are both engaged in United Nations-sponsored peace talks in Geneva. That's an achievement in itself following weeks of war, a UN envoy says, despite the parties not yet meeting face-to-face.

The delegation of Houthi rebels arrived in Geneva a day late on Tuesday, after their United Nations chartered plane was stranded in Djibouti. Despite the rebels blaming their opponents for the delay and the parties having clashing agendas, shuttle diplomacy began.

"We should not underestimate the significance of this event," UN special envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed told reporters. "It is an important start toward the return to a political process. Let us be realistic, it will be a difficult path, but the important issue is that we start addressing the crisis," he said, while pointing out that nothing would be settled unless the warring sides could be persuaded to sit down together around the negotiating table.

The United Nations is trying to broker a humanitarian truce between the rebels and the exiled government. On opening the talks earlier this week, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called for a truce to coincide with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. As of early Wednesday it was unclear how long the talks would go on for.

"We're all in agreement about the need for the ceasefire, but we're still discussing details," Ghaleb Al-Mutlak from the south Yemeni separatist movement Herak told reporters after Houthi envoys had talks with Ould Cheikh Amhed.

Suffering continues

Fighting in Yemen escalated in March when a Saudi-led alliance supporting Yemen's exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi began airstrikes on the Houthis and their allies aligned with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Houthis had taken over vast parts of the country. The UN said more than 2,900 people have been killed in fighting since March 19, with about half of those civilians. On Tuesday the UN children's agency said at least 279 children had been killed since March 26. As the talks got underway, fighting on the ground continued with news agencies reporting attacks in Taiz and near Aden.

The war is viewed as reflecting a greater regional power struggle between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran. Global powers fear terror groups such as the Yemen-based offshoot of al Qaeda, al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) would grow in power if the chaos continued. The leader of AQAP, Nasir al-Wahishi, was this week confirmed to have been killed in a US drone strike.

The Middle East regional director for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Robert Mardini, said in the lead-up to Ramadan there was little hope for the people of Yemen.

"It's been 80 days of chaos, death and destruction."

se/bw (AFP, Reuters, AP)

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