By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations envoy to Yemen was arranging face-to-face negotiations between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels but warned that a "disastrous humanitarian situation" has left most of the country in dire need.
Without naming specific parties to the conflict, U.N. envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed told the U.N. Security Council on Friday that it had been characterized by "blatant disregard for the laws of war."
At least 5,400 people have been killed in the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula and the United Nations says the humanitarian situation, exacerbated by a Saudi blockade of Yemen's ports, grows worse by the day.
Saudi Arabia has been leading an Arab military intervention since March to try to restore President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi's government, now based in Aden instead of the capital Sanaa, and fend off what it sees as creeping Iranian influence.
Ould Cheikh Ahmed told the Security Council that Hadi has agreed to send a delegation to peace talks that will include the Iranian-backed Houthis.
"I will start working immediately with the government of Yemen, the Houthis and other stakeholders to agree on the agenda, date and format for these talks," he said.
"I hope that these first face-to-face talks will chart a course towards a rapid end to the fighting, the resumption of political dialogue, and Yemen's return to an orderly and peaceful political transition," he said.
Ould Cheikh Ahmed said he wanted the talks to focus on main elements of Security Council resolution 2216 - withdrawing militias from key cities, releasing prisoners, returning heavy weapons seized from the army, improving the humanitarian situation and resuming inclusive political dialogue.
Previous U.N.-sponsored peace talks faltered in June after Hadi's government demanded that the Houthis pull out of cities captured since last September as a precondition for a ceasefire.
Ould Cheikh Ahmed said that in Yemen "civilians continue to face a deteriorating humanitarian situation and suffer the consequences of blatant disregard for the laws of war."
He said that the last U.N. humanitarian office report indicated there were more than 21 million people in need of humanitarian response, or 80 percent of the population. Some 20 million lacked access to safe drinking water and the number of severely malnourished children exceeded 500,000.
Without naming the Saudis, the envoy said a Saudi-led naval inspection regime "continues to undermine the lives and livelihoods of Yemenis."
(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; editing by Grant McCool)