US envoy in talks with Yemen rebels on peace conference

Muscat (AFP) - The United States confirmed that an American envoy has held talks in Oman with Iran-backed Yemeni rebels to convince them to attend a Geneva peace conference in mid-June.

The news of the talks came with a conference on Yemen having been scrapped just days before it was due to be held on May 28, dealing a blow to UN efforts to broker peace in a country where at least 2,000 people have been killed since March.

The meetings involved Washington's top diplomat for the Near East, who held talks in Oman with parties involved in the Yemen conflict, "including with representatives of the Huthi", said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf.

Anne Patterson, who also travelled to Saudi Arabia for talks on the conflict, wanted to persuade actors in the conflict to take part in a proposed peace conference in Geneva, she said.

Confirmation of the talks came as the UN Security Council on Tuesday backed a call by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for a new humanitarian pause in the fighting, saying peace talks should be held as soon as possible.

The 15-member council said in a unanimous statement they were "deeply disappointed" that the May 28 talks scheduled for Geneva were pushed back.

A diplomatic source told AFP that an announcement on a new date for the talks, possibly around June 10, was imminent.

- American freed -

Meanwhile, an American who was among several believed held by the Shiite Huthi rebels was freed and receiving treatment in Oman.

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

Released along with him was a Singaporean, according to Omani state media, which said they were on their way home.

Coombs, who had been freelancing in Yemen since 2012, writing for publications including Time magazine and The Intercept, had been held by the Huthis for two weeks, the Committee to Protect Journalists said.

The rebels have controlled the capital since September and have expanded across other parts of the country, prompting a Saudi-led bombing campaign that began on March 26 in support of exiled President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.

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

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 air campaign but has called for a political solution to the conflict.

A diplomat in Oman said the Huthis had told the US they want a halt to the bombing and uninterrupted access for deliveries of humanitarian aid.

The UN's World Food Programme warned Tuesday that "child malnutrition rates in Yemen are among the highest in the world".

It said one of its vessels carrying food docked at the western city of Hodeidah after being targeted by shelling as it approached the main southern port of Aden, while another was expected in days.

- 'Efforts and consultations' -

In Riyadh, UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed arrived from weekend talks in the rebel-held capital and met with Hadi.

Hadi's exiled but internationally recognised government said it was aware of the Oman talks, which were convened at Washington's request, but that it was not taking part.

"There are efforts and consultations to hold a meeting between the legitimate authority and the Huthi rebels in Geneva, brokered by the United Nations, within two weeks," said a government spokesman.

He reiterated the government's demand that the Huthis relinquish seized territory and weapons before it attends the talks, saying: "This is what we insist on."

The United Nations had called for the talks to be held without preconditions.

The Oman meetings followed a visit to Muscat last week by the foreign minister of Shiite Iran. Saudi Arabia's regional rival, it is accused of arming the rebels, a charge it denies.

Muscat has good ties with both governments, and has often played the role of mediator.

It is the only member of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council not to have joined the Saudi-led coalition, which hit rebel positions in Yemen's third city Taez and the southern province of Daleh.

Strikes also targeted the Huthis and their allies in Aden, where at least three people died and 53 were wounded when rebels fired mortar rounds on a residential district.

Meanwhile, apparent US drone strikes targeted two suspected Al-Qaeda vehicles in the northern province of Jawf, causing casualties, tribal sources said.

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