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American freed in Yemen as Oman hosts 'secret' US talks

US diplomats are thought to be seeking to soften Houthi demands, on one hand, and those of Saudi, Yemen's deposed president on the other
An American believed to be the American journalist Casey Coombs arrives in Oman (AFP)

An American among several believed held by Houthis in war-ravaged Yemen was Monday freed and flown to neighbouring Oman, host of talks between the US and the Houthis.

A diplomat in Oman said the talks between the Americans and the Houthis were aimed at promoting peace negotiations, which the UN has so far failed to organise in Geneva.

But the State Department only said that Anne Patterson, the top US official for Near East affairs, was in Oman for discussions "about many issues".

News of the release of the American identified as journalist Casey Coombs came as Omani state media reported that a Singaporean had also arrived in the sultanate on his way home.

"I can... confirm that US citizen Casey Coombs has departed Yemen and has arrived safely in Muscat, Oman," said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf.

"He is in stable condition. The US ambassador and a consular official met him at the airport upon his arrival and are providing all possible consular assistance."

Pictures released by Oman's official ONA news agency showed Coombs being rolled into an ambulance on a stretcher with a brace around his head.

"We are grateful to the government of Oman and personally to Sultan Qaboos for assisting with the safe passage of a US citizen to Oman," said Harf.

There was no confirmation of where the pair had been held or by whom, but the American journalist's Twitter account has been inactive since 15 May.

ONA news agency said the pair had been "found" with help from Muscat which had "coordinated with concerned parties in Yemen to search for the American citizen and the Singaporean".

The US said at the weekend it was working to secure the release of "several US citizens" held in Yemen.

The Washington Post said they were believed to be held by the Houthis in a prison near the capital which is in the group's control. 

One of them had initially been detained for overstaying his visa, but was then accused of travelling to "sensitive" areas in Yemen, said the newspaper.

'Secret talks'

Saudi Arabia is leading an Arab coalition that launched an air war on the Houthis and their allies in Yemen on 26 March.

Diplomatic sources in Oman told AFP on Monday that talks were taking place between a US delegation and the Houthis.

"During these secret and informal talks, the Americans are seeking to bring closer positions of the Houthis on one hand, and the Saudis and (Yemeni) President (Abd Rabbuh Mansour) Hadi on the other, with the hope of convincing these to lower the ceiling of their demands," one diplomat told AFP.

The Geneva conference had been due to take place on 28 May but was postponed, in a blow to UN efforts to end a conflict estimated to have killed 2,000 people.

Yemen's government says it will only take part once the Houthis withdrew from at least part of the territory they have seized, in line with a UN Security Council resolution.

In Riyadh, UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed arrived from weekend talks in Sanaa and met with Hadi, the exiled but internationally backed Yemeni president.

Iran is accused of arming the Houthis, a claim the Shia-dominated country denies.

Yemen's neighbour Oman has good ties with both Tehran and Riyadh, and Muscat has often played the role of mediator.

It is the only member of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council not to have joined the Saudi-led coalition.

Explosions, clashes

In Sanaa, at least eight civilians were killed and 20 wounded in explosions sparked by coalition strikes on rebel arms depots, an official said.

The raids on Mount Noqum base sent munitions and shrapnel flying into adjacent residential neighbourhoods, residents said.

Strikes also hit Houthi positions in Amran, north of Sanaa, Taez farther south, Marib in the east, arms depots in western Hodeidah province, and the group's positions in the southern region of Daleh.

In Abyan province, also in the south, at least 20 rebels were killed in an ambush on one of their convoys, an official said. 

Clashes in second city Aden killed at least eight people, including three civilians, and wounded 133 in the past 48 hours, medics said.

A UN-chartered ship loaded with humanitarian supplies bound for Yemen was targeted by shelling as it approached Aden on Sunday, a provincial government official said, blaming the Houthis.

The World Food Programme confirmed the ship was diverted to Hodeidah port, north of Aden.

Meanwhile, the captors of Frenchwoman Isabelle Prime, kidnapped in Yemen on 24 February, have posted the first video of her since the abduction, in which she appealed to the French and Yemeni presidents to take action to secure her release.