A delegation including Yemen's Shia Houthi rebels arrived in Geneva for United Nations-brokered peace talks Tuesday, a day later than expected and promptly accused the Yemen's exiled government of commandeering the negotiations.
"They tried to impose their own agenda," Abdulmalek al-Houthi, the rebel leader, said in a televised speech on the Houthi-aligned Al-Masirah television channel. He accused the Yemeni government of using the United Nations and envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed as a "tool."
"Leave to the United Nations some neutrality to continue its mission. ... Stop your continuous attempts to control its new envoy," said al-Houthi.
The Geneva talks are aimed at ending months of fighting that prompted a Saudi-led coalition to launch an air campaign against the Houthis and their allies nearly three months ago. The rebels have blamed their delayed arrival on Egypt, a member of the coalition.
It's unclear how long the talks — at least initially involving mediators shuttling between the parties, rather than face-to-face encounters — will last. U.N. spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said the start of Ramadan later this week may affect whether the delegations stay.
"It is a golden opportunity to try and resolve this crisis," Fawzi said. But "whether they will agree to extend their stay beyond the beginning of Ramadan is anybody's guess."
A Saudi-led coalition of Arab states has been bombing Houthi forces in an attempt to restore President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who has fled to Saudi Arabia. Yemen's conflict pits the Houthis — who seized Sanaa last year — and military units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh against an array of forces, including southern separatists, local and tribal militias and loyalists of Hadi. Around 2,000 people have been killed and half a million displaced by the fighting.
The U.N. envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, has for weeks been shuttling between the Houthi-controlled capital, the exiled government in Riyadh and other regional capitals to garner support for the Geneva peace talks.
Hadi had previously insisted that the Houthis obey U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216, passed in April, which required them to recognize his administration and quit Yemen's main cities. He reiterated that insistence on Tuesday.
The Houthis, for their part, had sought a suspension of the bombing raids. Al-Houthi said in his speech Tuesday that Hadi's government was skirting around a permanent solution to the crisis by focusing only on the Security Council resolution.
It is "seeking to hamper any serious ... outcomes that could resolve the country's political situation. They want chaos," he said.
Figures released Tuesday underlined the urgency of finding a solution. Between Thursday and Monday, 50 civilians were killed — among them 18 children — and a further 111 were wounded, the U.N. human rights office said. That brings the total number of civilians killed since March 26 to 1,412, with 3,423 wounded, it added.
UNICEF, the U.N. children's agency, said that at least 279 children have been killed and 402 wounded in total since March 26, and that children are being used by armed groups to man checkpoints or carry arms.
The delegation from Sanaa includes loyalists of Saleh and representatives of other political groups.
The U.N. secretary-general's special envoy on Yemen was to meet them at their hotel to get the delegation down to the maximum seven people, plus three advisers, that was agreed for the talks, Fawzi said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pressed for a halt to fighting at the start of Ramadan, the Muslim month of dawn-to-dusk fasting, as he launched the talks Monday.