For awhile Monday, it looked as though a Houthi rebel delegation on its way to Geneva for United Nations-led talks on the Yemen crisis would never reach Geneva. Houthi leader Zif al-Shami claimed the delegation was prevented from landing in Cairo while en route to Switzerland, and that it would therefore likely return to Sanaa.
Shami told the Associated Press that the Saudi Arabia-led coalition conducting an ongoing series of airstrikes on the Houthis had been trying to block their passage. Egypt, a coalition member, reportedly denied the charges, saying it had not been asked to allow the plane to land at any of its airports, or even to fly through its airspace. Shami blamed the situation on the UN.
But now, the United Nations says a UN plane carrying the Houthi delegation has left Djibouti and will arrive in Geneva early Tuesday. The discussions were scheduled to begin Monday and expected to include representatives of exiled president Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi's government, the insurgent Houthi rebels who now control much of the country, and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh's General Peoples' Congress.
Hadi's government is now based in Riyadh, but loyalists are battling the Houthis and some allied army remnants who back Saleh. A Saudi-led coalition is also conducting an ongoing series of airstrikes targeting the rebels. The fighting has now killed more than 2,500 people.
UN spokesman Ahmad Fawzi told reporters in Geneva on Monday morning that the organization hoped the two sides would agree on a ceasefire, a plan for the Houthis to pull back from seized territory, and an increase in humanitarian aid. The UN's special envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, also appealed to both sides to make serious efforts to negotiate peace.
"The United Nations takes this opportunity to appeal to Yemen's political actors to participate in these consultations in good faith and without pre-conditions, and in a climate of trust and mutual respect, in order to find ways to revive the political process and to reach a solution that will save Yemen and its people from the current crisis," he said in a statement released Saturday.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon was also in Geneva — the delay reportedly meant the Houthis missed a chance to meet with Ban — and previously said he hoped the consultations would "restart a peaceful, orderly, inclusive, and Yemeni-led transition process."
But even before the latest developments, the two sides were sharply divided, and talks would have begun with both sides in separate rooms. Ahmed would have moved between them.
Meanwhile, despite Ban's calls for a humanitarian pause to deliver aid and "help create an atmosphere that is more conducive for peaceful dialogue," fighting continued across the country. The coalition launched airstrikes on weapons stockpiles in Sanaa on Sunday night, Al Jazeera reported, while further strikes took place in the coastal enclave of Aden, according to military sources cited by AFP, where residents accused the rebels of firing Katyusha rockets at civilian areas.
The Houthis also seized Al-Hazm city in Jawf province, less than 90 miles from the Saudi Arabia border, and clashes took place in Daleh.
[ooyalacontent_id="s4dWFvdDot5v2KwX5gACmcBWuerd2Hpz"player_id="YjMwNmI4YjU2MGM5ZWRjMzRmMjljMjc5" auto_play="1" skip_ads="0"]
'Yemen: A Failed State'
Yemen's political transition since Saleh was ousted in 2012's Arab Spring-inspired uprising had been widely seen as a rare success story. But the impoverished state has been increasingly troubled since the Houthis swept down from their northern homelands in September and overran Sanaa. The avowedly anti-America and anti-Israeli rebels are accused of being used by Saleh to restore his power and influence in the country.
The Saudi-led coalition began launching strikes on the Houthis on March 26 in an attempt to stop their advance across the country. So far it has had little success in dislodging them from captured territory — and been criticized for killing hundreds of civilians.
The World Health Organization said Friday that as of June 7, 2,584 people had been killed and a further 11,065 wounded in the fighting. About 20 million people, almost 80 percent of the country's population, are now in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, the UN said last week. Fuel, food, and medicine prices have skyrocketed since the fighting began; fuel shortages have closed down many hospitals, and humanitarian agencies are at risk of being unable to operate at all.
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck