Saudi Arabia invites Houthi rebels for talks in kingdom

Direct negotiations with rebels have been taking place since September, Saudi ambassador to Yemen says

Saudi-led coalition spokesman, Colonel Turki al-Malki, displays the debris of a ballistic missile which he says was launched by Yemen's Houthi group towards the capital Riyadh, during a news conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia March 29, 2020. REUTERS/Ahmed Yosri
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Saudi Arabia is enabling a diplomatic channel with Yemen’s Houthi rebels to try to end the five-year war.

Efforts to end the conflict are being pushed by the UN special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, who led peace talks more than a year ago in Sweden.

An agreement was reached on a ceasefire in the port city of Hodeidah and a prisoner exchange but hostilities and mistrust stalled the process.

Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed Al Jaber, told The Wall Street Journal that Riyadh had been in direct talks with the rebels since last September and invited them to the kingdom.

The invitation for talks in the country were “undertaken at the request” of the UN envoy, Mr Al Jaber said.

"This is part of Martin Griffiths's process," a western diplomat told The National.

Yemen’s internationally recognised government and the Houthi rebels welcomed an agreement to de-escalate the conflict last Thursday to battle the spread of the coronavirus in the region.

Yemen has not officially recorded any cases of the virus.

The agreement follows a surge in violence at the weekend.

Saudi Arabia said it intercepted two ballistic missiles aimed at Riyadh and Jizan at the weekend, part of a drone and missile attack by the Iran-backed rebels.

In response, the Saudi-led Arab Coalition in Yemen launched strikes on Monday against rebel military bases in Sanaa.

Talks are still on the table, Mr Al Jaber said.

He said the Saudi-led coalition strikes on Sanaa were not intended to cause a flare-up in hostilities but were in response to the rebels’ missile attacks.

“We are committed to our de-escalation,” Mr Al Jaber said.

“We are ready to have a ceasefire in all Yemeni territory if they accept it.”

He said direct talks have been held with the rebels since last September after they vowed to stop strikes on Saudi territory,

It followed attacks on major Saudi oil plants.

Yemen has been mired in conflict since the Houthis pushed the government out of the capital, Sanaa, in late 2014.

The group still controls most major urban centres despite years of war.