Tribesmen clash with Houthis as US talks continue in Oman

Ambush kills 18 rebels as an American held by the Houthis reaches Oman for treatment, where talks between Washington and the Iran-backed rebels have been taking place.

US Ambassador to Oman, Greta Holtz talking to American journalist, Casey Coombs, who had been held captive in Yemen, after arriving in Muscat. EPA
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SANAA // Tribesmen killed 18 Houthi fighters in an ambush in Yemen’s central province of Ibb on Tuesday in one of the deadliest ground attacks in more than two months of war.

The assault hit a convoy of militiamen and allied army troops in the town of Qaeda while they were en route to the city of Taez, a flashpoint of clashes between Yemen’s Houthis and backers of the exiled president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi.

Farther south in Dalea province, around 15 Houthi fighters were killed in heavy clashes with pro-Hadi fighters on Monday night.

A coalition of Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia, seeking to restore Mr Hadi to power, has carried out more than nine weeks of air strikes on Houthi fighters who have seized large parts of Yemen.

The Houthis, members of a Shiite sect hailing from a Yemen’s far north, seized the capital in September and fanned out southward, triggering the Arab military intervention.

The rebels also hold several foreigners hostage along with members of Mr Hadi’s government. Mr Hadi was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia to escape the rebels.

One of the hostages, an American was freed and receiving treatment on Tuesday in Oman, which has been hosting talks between Washington and the Iran-backed Houthis.

A diplomat in Muscat said the talks between the Americans and the Houthis were aimed at promoting a proposed peace conference in Geneva, which the United Nations has so far failed to persuade the warring parties to attend.

But the State Department said only that Anne Patterson, the top US official for Near East affairs, was in Oman for discussions “about many issues”.

News of the release of American journalist Casey Coombs came as Omani state media reported that a Singaporean had also arrived in the sultanate on his way home.

“I can ... confirm that US citizen Casey Coombs has departed Yemen and has arrived safely in Muscat,” said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf.

“He is in stable condition. The US ambassador and a consular official met him at the airport upon his arrival and are providing all possible consular assistance.”

Pictures released by Oman’s official ONA news agency showed Coombs being stretchered into an ambulance with a brace around his head.

“We are grateful to the government of Oman and personally to Sultan Qaboos for assisting with the safe passage of a US citizen to Oman,” said Ms Harf.

Coombs, who had been working as a freelance journalist in Yemen since 2012, writing for publications including Time magazine and The Intercept, had been held by the Houthis for two weeks, the Committee to Protect Journalists said.

The journalist’s detention by the Houthis had been kept secret at the request of his family.

In an article he wrote for The Intercept last month, he said he had been trying to leave the country, but was struggling to find a safe route out amid the fighting.

The United States said at the weekend it was working to secure the release of “several US citizens” held in Yemen.

Washington has provided intelligence and logistical support for the Saudi-led air campaign but has called for a political solution to the conflict which has killed at least 2,000 people since March.

Diplomatic sources in Oman said the talks were taking place between a US delegation and the Houthis.

“During these secret and informal talks, the Americans are seeking to bring closer positions of the Houthis on one hand, and the Saudis and President Hadi on the other, with the hope of convincing these to lower the ceiling of their demands,” one diplomat said.

The Geneva conference had been due to take place on May 28 but was postponed, after Mr Hadi insisted that the rebels must first withdraw from at least part of the territory they have seized, in line with a UN Security Council resolution.

*Reuters and Agence France-Presse