A delegation from the Houthi group is in Saudi Arabia for talks on ending Yemen’s war, two senior officials say, in what appears to be the most serious attempt to date to end the conflict.
The visit, reported on Tuesday, is the first of its kind since the war began in March last year between Iran-allied Houthi forces and an Arab military coalition assembled by Saudi Arabia.
The visit began on Monday at the invitation of Saudi authorities, following a week of secret preparatory talks, said the two senior officials from the administrative body that runs parts of Yemen controlled by the Houthis.
About 6,000 people, half of them civilians, have died in the fighting in Yemen, raising fears of a wider regional confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Underlining the regional rifts, a senior Iranian military official indicated on Tuesday that Iran could send military advisers to Yemen to help the Houthis.
In an interview with Tasnim News Agency, Brigadier-General Masoud Jazayeri, deputy chief of staff of the armed forces, suggested Iran could support the Houthis in a similar way it has backed President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria.
“The Islamic Republic felt its duty to help the Syrian government and nation. It also feels its duty to help the people of Yemen in any way it can, and to any level necessary.”
The Houthi delegation in Saudi Arabia is headed by Mohammed Abdel-Salam, the Houthis’ main spokesman and a senior adviser to Houthi leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, the officials said.
Abdel-Salam previously led Houthi delegates in talks in Oman that paved the way for UN-sponsored talks in Switzerland last year.
The spokesman for the Arab coalition that has been fighting to restore Yemen’s President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to power since last year has yet to comment on the reported talks.
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The Saudi foreign ministry has also not commented.
Two members of the Houthi-run Revolutionary Committee, which administers parts of the country controlled by the group, said the talks were taking place.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Luciano Zaccara, professor on Gulf Studies at Qatar University, said the latest move by the Houthis was “surprising”.
“It could be that the Houtis are losing ground, and that they are doing it now before it’s too late to save face,” Zaccara said.
He said Saudi has also not signaled willingness to negotiate until the Yemeni capital Sanaa is recaptured by government forces.
The Houthi visit coincides with an apparent lull in the fighting on the Saudi-Yemeni border, one of the bloodiest fronts in the conflict, and in Arab coalition air strikes on the Yemeni capital Sanaa.
The Houthis’ Al Masirah news channel has continued to report attacks on what it calls “the Saudi-American forces of aggression” inside Yemen, including a rocket attack on Monday.
However, it has not reported any operations on the border since March 1.
Between February 4 and 26, Al Masirah reported daily military operations against Saudi frontier positions and towns by the Houthis and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, including sniper attacks, mortar bombardments, ambushes and infiltrations.
The last Arab coalition air strike on Sanaa was also about a week ago, according to the city’s residents.