ISIL-claimed blasts kill 31 in Yemen as peace talks fail to progress

Five simultaneous blasts targeted Shiite mosques in the capital Sanaa, as well as the house of Saleh Al Sammad, the head of the Houthi rebels' politburo who was at the peace talks in Geneva.

Smoke rises above buildings after car bombs struck Shiite mosques in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa on June 17, 2015. Yahya Arhab/EPA
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GENEVA // The United Nations was scrambling on Wednesday to get Yemen peace talks in Geneva moving with both the exiled government and the country’s Houthi rebels accusing each other of trying to sabotage the process.

It came as at least 31 people were killed and dozens wounded in five simultaneous blasts at Shiite mosques and a house in the rebel-held capital of Sanaa.

The attacks, which were timed to coincide with sunset prayers, were claimed by ISIL in an online statement.

Two car bombs targeted mosques, while a third hit the house of the head of the Houthis’ politburo, Saleh Al Sammad, who is part of the Geneva delegation.

Explosive devices also went off at two other mosques.

One of the mosques hit by a car bomb was Al Hashush, which was targeted in a series of suicide bombings in March – also claimed by ISIL – that killed 142 people.

In Geneva, the third day of the high stakes talks also stumbled over the make-up of the different delegations.

“The only positive point so far is that the negotiations are continuing and that no delegation has slammed the door,” said a Western diplomat close to the talks.

The meeting was launched by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon with an appeal for a badly-needed two-week humanitarian truce.

Yemen’s conflict pits the Iranian-backed Houthis – who seized the capital last year – and military units loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, against an array of forces, including southern separatists, local and tribal militias, hardline militants and loyalists of exiled president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi. A Saudi-led coalition, which backs Mr Hadi, began carrying out airstrikes against the Houthis on March 26.

The UN special envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, has urged the warring sides to bend down, stressing the dire situation in Yemen. More than 2,600 people have been killed since March, while about 21 million people are in dire need of humanitarian aid.

But the positions of the two warring sides are so divergent that they are not sitting in the same room and the UN is holding separate consultations with them.

“In a situation like this, the Yemenis need to talk among themselves, not with the United Nations,” Mr Ould Cheikh Ahmed said.

He also said late on Tuesday that the talks had so far focused on trying to get the rebels to reduce the size of their delegation from 22 to the pre-agreed 10.

“We believe that in order to commence, the numbers need to be reduced and there has to be a balance between the two teams,” he said.

The rebels rejected that their delegation size was a sticking point.

“The question of the number of delegates is not a problem,” said Faiwa Sayed, a leader of the General People’s Congress, the former ruling party which is still headed by Mr Saleh.

“Our main demand is that the UN consider these talks as consultations between different Yemeni political parties, and not between different camps,” said Mr Sayed.

The exiled government’s delegation was also shrouded in controversy after it became apparent that a man on the US blacklist of suspected Al Qaeda supporters was on its team.

Abdel Wahab Al Humayqani, who heads the hardline Al Rashad party in Yemen, took part in the opening of the peace talks in the Swiss city on Monday, where he was photographed with Mr Ban.

He also features on a list of delegates of the government in exile, as a representative of Al Rashad.

Mr Al Humayqani was added to the US blacklist in December 2013, suspected of financing Yemen’s Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He has denied the US allegations.

On Wednesday morning, the government delegation met with a group of 16 diplomats from large powers within the European Union and Gulf countries, who are following the talks.

As a sign of the chaos surrounding the meeting, Yemeni foreign minister Riad Yassin and other delegation members, including Mr Al Humayqani, marched into a scheduled news conference at the UN in Geneva and told a room full of journalists that the conference was postponed “because we want these consultations to succeed.”

Mr Ould Cheikh Ahmed has insisted that just getting the two sides to Geneva at the same time was “an achievement”.

However, beyond being in the same city, neither side has shown any signs they are prepared to budge on the issues.

Mr Yassin repeated the exiled government’s stand that a rebel pullout was non-negotiable.

* Agence France-Presse with additional reporting by Associated Press