U.N. Chief Ban Ki-moon launched Yemen peace talks in Geneva on Monday with a call for a humanitarian truce as warplanes from a Saudi-led Arab coalition pounded the Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa overnight.
More than 2,600 people have been killed since the coalition began military operations in March to stop Houthi fighters moving on Aden and to shore up embattled President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, then in the southern city.
Ban said the truce, called to mark the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan later this week, should last for at least two weeks to allow life-saving supplies into the country.
“I'm urging them that, particularly during this Ramadan — which is a period for peace for people, and praying for peace — they must stop,” he told reporters. “Today Yemen's very existence hangs in the balance. While the parties bicker, Yemen burns,” he added.
Yemeni Foreign Minister Reyad Yassin Abdullah dismissed the possibility of any cease fire soon.
“A cease-fire, for what? If they are still occupying Yemen, they are still killing innocent people, if they are still destroying everything, what kind of cease-fire?” Abdullah told reporters in Geneva.
But he said his exiled government might consider a “limited” truce if the Houthis agreed to withdraw from cities, including Aden and Taiz, and free more than 6,000 prisoners.
Representatives of Hadi's government were in Geneva for the talks, but a plane carrying members of the Houthi's Ansarullah group and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh's General People's Congress party had to land in Djibouti after what Yemeni political sources said was Egypt's refusal to give the plane overflight rights. The head of Egypt's civil aviation authority, Mahmoud Zanaty, said Egypt had not received a request for the plane to land at any of its airports or pass through its airspace.
The plane was later allowed to leave for Geneva.
The Geneva talks are expected to last two to three days, with the U.N. special envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, shuttling between the delegations.
Analysts have said there is little sign so far that either the Houthis and their ally Saleh or the Riyadh-based Hadi are ready to compromise after nearly three months of fighting.
Saudi Arabia's cabinet welcomed United Nations efforts to convene the talks and said it supported Hadi's government demands that talks focus on implementing a Security Council resolution demanding the Houthis leave cities they have seized since last year.
Ban also called for the withdrawal of armed forces from the cities, saying the fighting was bolstering armed groups.
“The region simply cannot sustain another open wound like Syria and Libya,” he said.
While Western countries largely backed the air campaign as a way of pushing the Houthis to the negotiating table, they have more recently started to press Saudi Arabia to agree to a humanitarian pause to allow aid in, and to negotiate.
The crisis began when the Houthis seized Sanaa last September to little resistance, saying they were trying to root out corruption and discrimination. Hadi fled to Aden in February then escaped to Saudi Arabia as Houthi forces closed in on the southern port city.
Although the conflict is rooted in local rivalries, Saudi Arabia appears to view the fighting as part of a wider regional struggle between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. Tehran, however, denies it is providing military support to Yemen's Houthi rebels.
Iran's deputy foreign minister for Middle East affairs will discuss the conflict on Tuesday at a meeting of the pan-Islamic Organization of Islamic Cooperation hosted by Saudi Arabia in Jeddah, the Iranian Mehr news agency reported.
The crisis has also forced the United States to withdraw its military personnel from Yemen, seen by U.S. as a frontline in its war against the region’s armed groups.
Fighting raged throughout Yemen's south and center on Monday, in clashes pitting tribesmen and pro-Hadi fighters against the Houthis and their army allies.
Airstrikes hit Houthi positions in Saana on Monday and in the nearby province of al-Dhalea to back up local armed fighters, who exchanged heavy artillery salvos with the Houthis.
A humanitarian crisis has worsened due to an air and sea blockade imposed to stop arms supplies to the Houthis and Saleh, but which also cut off access to food, medicine and fuel for many citizens.
More than 3,000 cases of dengue fever have been recorded in five provinces since the conflict began, with three confirmed deaths, the World Health Organization said.
Medical sources in Aden say dozens have died from the illness, which has spread from mounting piles of uncollected rubbish and intense summer heat.