Dubai: Yemeni Foreign Minister Abdul Malek Al Mekhlafi has denied reports of secret talks between Saudi Arabia and the Al Houthi militia, and said that the only channel of communication with the group is through the United Nations’ Yemen envoy.
Speaking to Gulf News on the phone from Saudi Arabia, Al Mekhlafi said on Tuesday evening that the Yemeni government was informed by Saudi Arabia that there was an exchange of prisoners of war between the Saudi government and Al Houthis in the “past two days”.
“Our position is announced and clear. There is no secret or back channel, or any other form of talks [with Al Houthis] apart from the talks sponsored by the [UN envoy] Esmail Ould Shaikh Ahmad,” stressed Al Mekhlafi.
“The only and basic way of talks we support are the talks to implement the UN resolution 2216 ... There are talks through Ould Shaikh Ahmad to arrange for a new round of talks, which we hope will be held soon,” he added.
“We also hope that they [Al Houthis] will respond to the requirements agreed on in [previous rounds of talks] in Switzerland, because the Yemeni government has been waiting since January 14 for Al Houthi confidence-building measures, and that the Yemeni government is asserting its readiness to [agree] on the time and venue of the new talks,” he said.
Al Mekhlafi said that there was nothing extraordinary about the prisoner exchange between Al Houthis and Saudi Arabia.
“There is a continuous exchange of Yemeni prisoners of war on the ground ... what happened in the past two days was an exchange between the Saudi brothers and Al Houthis ... I don’t have more details about the exchange. But it happened as we were told by the Saudi brothers”.
A number of Yemeni, Arab and Western news outlets on Tuesday reported that talks had begun between Al Houthis and Saudi Arabia. Reuters news agency cited two senior officials from the administrative body that runs parts of Yemen controlled by the Al Houthis, saying the Al Houthi visit to Saudi Arabia began on Monday at the invitation of Saudi authorities, following a week of secret preparatory talks.
It reported that an Al Houthi delegation made the first visit of its kind to Saudi Arabia since the war began last year between Al Houthi forces and an Arab military coalition led by Riyadh.
The reported talks coincide with an apparent lull in fighting on the Saudi-Yemen border and in Saudi Arabia-led Arab coalition air strikes on the Al Houthi-held Yemeni capital Sana’a.
The two senior officials were reported to have said that the Al Houthi delegation in Saudi Arabia is headed by Mohammad Abdul Salam, the Al Houthis’ main spokesman and a senior adviser to Al Houthi leader Abdul Malek Al Houthi, the officials said.
Abdul Salam previously led Al Houthi delegates in talks in Oman that paved the way for UN-sponsored talks in Switzerland last year.
A spokesman for the Saudi-led Arab coalition fighting to restore President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi to power could not immediately be reached for comment. A Saudi foreign ministry spokesman could also not be reached.
Yemen’s Marib Press reported that the Al Houthi delegation was provided with a security detail by Saudi Arabia during the visit, adding that accompanying the delegation was a Saudi soldier held as prisoner of war by the Al Houthi militia. The UAE’s Al Khaleej reported that the Al Houthi delegation entered the kingdom using the Alp crossing in Aseer province, adding that a Saudi delegation had also earlier arrived in the northern provinces of Yemen that are under Al Houthi control.