SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Attempts to ease fighting in Yemen appeared to falter Thursday, as Shiite rebels pressed an offensive in the south and a Saudi Arabia-led coalition intensified its airstrikes less than two days after it said it was scaling back the campaign.
All sides have declared their willingness to enter talks, but none has taken any steps to end the conflict that has killed more than 1,000 people.
Still, the head of U.N. operations in Yemen said in an interview with The Associated Press that a renewal of such talks is "inevitable," and behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts could bring results in the coming weeks.
The battle in the Arab world's poorest country pits the Iranian-backed rebels known as Houthis and their allies — military units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh — against the Saudi-led coalition and the forces of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Although Hadi is the internationally recognized leader, he was forced to flee his southern stronghold of Aden last month as the Houthis advanced toward the port. He is in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
Western governments and the Sunni Arab countries in the coalition say the Houthis get their arms from Shiite powerhouse Iran. Tehran and the rebels deny that, although the Islamic Republic has provided political and humanitarian support to the Shiite group.
Warplanes hammered Aden, hitting hotels and a police club occupied by the Houthis and their allies. Heavy strikes also hit positions in five other cities, many of them gateways to Aden, officials said.
At least six airstrikes targeted an air base, a military camp, and weapon caches in the western port of Houdida. In the western city of Taiz, jets bombed the headquarters of Battalion 35, led by pro-Saleh commanders. In the nearby city of Ibb, the planes targeted educational facilities suspected of storing weapons, officials said.
Rebel reinforcements were bombed in the central province of Marib, while in the city of Dhale, another gateway to the south, airstrikes targeted suspected weapons depots and assembly points for fighters. Residents of Dahle said the city was being shelled by the Houthis and forces loyal to Saleh, Yemen's longtime authoritarian leader who was a staunch U.S. ally.
All the Yemeni officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media, and witnesses asked not to be identified, fearing for their safety.
On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia announced an end of the first phase of its coalition's month-old air campaign against the Houthis, who swept out of the north and advanced toward southern Yemen. The Saudis said a new phase called "Renewal of Hope" was beginning, focused on diplomacy, protecting civilians, counterterrorism and halting future military actions by the Houthis.
The rebels and their allies have lost little ground despite the airstrikes, with Houthis controlling the north and the capital of Sanaa, while trying to make inroads in the southern and central provinces. Hadi and the rest of his cabinet are operating from exile in Saudi Arabia. Aden is being besieged by the Houthis and Saleh's forces.
Yemeni activist Walid Saleh said the coalition is trying to push its opponents into a corner, while the rebels will continue to try to take over Aden to force more concessions.
A U.N. Security Council resolution passed April 14 includes demands that the Houthis withdraw from areas they have seized, including Sanaa, and relinquish arms and missiles seized from military and security institutions.
Saudi Arabia maintains that those preconditions must be met before any real reconciliatory talks can begin, according to a top Hadi aide who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to reporters. Other than implementing the resolution, "all doors are closed," the aide said by phone from Riyadh.
Independent Yemeni political analyst Fathi Nasr said Tuesday's announcement by Saudi Arabia of the curtailing of airstrikes was "a smart move that won appeal from the international community, while at the same time, nothing changed on the ground."
Houthi leaders had appeared to make a conciliatory statement Wednesday by calling for a resumption of dialogue and efforts under U.N. auspices that lead to a peaceful compromise, although the airstrikes must end first. Last weekend, rebel leader Abdul-Malek al-Houthi made a defiant speech in which he vowed there would be no surrender and rejected U.N. efforts.
Paolo Lembo, the U.N. resident coordinator in Yemen, said there have been more than 4,000 airstrikes since the campaign began March 26. He said nearly 1,100 people have been killed, with the actual figure believed to be higher, and that 150,000 have been displaced.
In an interview in Amman, Jordan, Lembo said all sides "are aware that there is no other solution" than a political settlement, but that fighting will likely continue for some time. He added that he believes that "the resumption of peace talks is inevitable" despite the renewed fighting.
"Diplomatic discussions are occurring, invisibly, behind the scenes, and I know there is reason enough to believe that they should bring good results in the future, in the coming weeks," he said.
Lembo, who was evacuated from Yemen earlier this month, also hopes to see "a conference that will bring most of the parties to the table," but would not elaborate.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon nominated Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed to be the new special envoy to Yemen to guide future peace talks. His predecessor, Jamal Benomar, resigned last week after sharp criticism from Gulf countries. Benomar's four years of trying to broker a peaceful political transition fell apart amid the rebel uprising and the airstrikes.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif arrived Thursday in Saudi Arabia to meet with King Salman to push for negotiations to resolve the conflict, according to Pakistan's Foreign Office.
Sharif came to explain why Pakistan was not contributing troops to the coalition, said a Pakistani diplomat in Riyadh who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. "The other party expressed understanding to the Pakistani position," the diplomat said, referring to Saudi officials.
The Saudis — joined in the coalition by other Gulf countries, Egypt and Sudan — view the rebels as an Iranian proxy bent on expanding Tehran's influence across the region.
In a thinly veiled reference to Iran, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said Thursday that Egypt will not permit any country to threaten the national security of any other Arab country.
"With help of our brotherly Arabs, we will not allow any force to expand its power (influence) or plots on the Arab world," he said.
In Washington, a U.S. defense official said a convoy of Iranian cargo ships that had been headed toward Yemen, possibly with advanced weaponry for the rebels, has reversed its direction, at least temporarily. It remains unclear where the nine-ship convoy may be headed, but as of Thursday it was no longer moving in the direction of Aden, said the official, who was not authorized to discuss ship movements publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Wednesday the Iranian ships might be carrying weapons to the Houthis, but he would not say whether the U.S. would forcibly stop and board one of the Iranian ships if it entered Yemeni waters.
During a visit to the Gulf nation of Bahrain, Yemeni Foreign Minister Riad Yassin repeated accusations that Iran was arming the Houthis. "These militias are attacking all Yemenis as part of an Iranian plan in the region," he said.
Associated Press writers Karin Laub in Amman, Jordan; Maggie Michael in Cairo; Asif Shahzad in Islamabad; Reem Khalifa in Manama, Bahrain; Cara Anna at the United Nations; and national Security Writer Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.