ADEN (Reuters) - Yemen's president has called a meeting of political forces on May 17 to discuss his country's war that will include former associates of a powerful ally of the Houthis, a move that could bolster the ranks of opponents of the Iranian-allied force.
Mukhtar al-Rahbi, press secretary at President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi's office, said neither the Houthis nor their influential ally, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, were expected to attend the gathering, to be held in Saudi Arabia.
But individuals who recently broke with Saleh, who has the loyalty of large sections of the factionalised military, would be there, he said.
"The Houthis and Saleh will not attend, but leaders of the General People's Congress party who have broken away from Saleh, will attend," Rahbi told Reuters, referring to a political party led by the former veteran leader.
The talks, which would bring together southern separatists and northern political parties, are aimed at forging common ground among opponents of the Houthis that would be used in any future dialogue with the Shi'ite Muslim group, officials in Hadi's administration in exile said.
At stake is an attempt to end six weeks of Saudi-led military strikes that have caused hundreds of civilian casualties and added further hardships to an existing humanitarian crisis by imposing a naval blockade.
Opponents of the Houthis see the group as a proxy force for Shi'ite Iran, extending Tehran's interest in the area.
Yemen has sunk deeper into crisis since the Houthis captured the capital Sanaa in September citing their exclusion from the government and an intention to fight corruption in the country.
HADI IN EXILE
Hadi and his government in exile in Riyadh say they will talk to the Houthis and Saleh if the Shi'ite Muslim group quits cities it had seized since last September, particularly the port of Aden, and lay down their arms.
For their part, the Houthis say they will talk only if the air strikes stop completely.
U.N.-sponsored talks ended without agreement in March when the Houthis marched towards Hadi's Aden stronghold and the Saudi-led alliance commenced air strikes.
Saudi King Salman, presiding at a meeting of Gulf Arab heads of state, announced establishment of a center to coordinate humanitarian assistance.
Saudi-led planes launched four raids on Houthi and Saleh forces in marib province and Saudi artillery shelled Houthi targets along the northern border of Yemen following an attack on Saudi territory, residents said.
Overnight on Monday, residents said Saudi-led planes struck four hotels used by Houthi snipers in the Dar Sa'ad district north of Aden, causing some casualties.
Southern fighters also killed at least 12 Houthi fighters in heavy clashes on Monday night in al-Arish, an area near Aden airport where fighting has been concentrated in recent weeks, residents and local fighters said.
(Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Cairo and Mukhashaf in Aden, writing by Sami Aboudi, Editing by William Maclean and .......... .....................)