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Saudi pilots killed in helicopter crash in eastern Yemen: State media

Saudi-led coalition says helicopter crashed following technical issues while carrying out operations in eastern province of al-Mahra
Al-Mahra province, bordering Oman in east Yemen, has seen little fighting compared to the rest of the country (AFP - file pic)

Two Saudi pilots were killed when their helicopter came down in the eastern Yemeni province of al-Mahra, the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen has said.

In a statement carried by the Saudi Press Agency on Friday, the coalition said the helicopter, which belonged to the Saudi ground forces, had crashed following technical issues.

"[The helicopter came down] when it was carrying out its tasks of fighting terrorism and smuggling in al-Mahra in Yemen," the statement said, quoting the coalition spokesman Colonel Turki al-Malki.

Al-Mahra province, bordering Oman in east Yemen, has seen little fighting compared to the rest of the country since the coalition's intervention in Yemen in early 2015.

However, suspected fighters from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have been active in the region, the Reuters news agency reported.

Peace talks discussed

Meanwhile, the UN's Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths has discussed a possible new round of peace talks with the Houthis, who last week refused to attend negotiations in Geneva, the rebel-run Saba news agency said on Friday.

Griffiths met with the head of the Houthi delegation, Mohammed Abdulsalam, on Thursday in the Omani capital Muscat, Saba said.

Another Houthi official, Abdelmalak al-Ajri, also attended the meeting where the rebels discussed the reasons for their absence from Geneva with the envoy.

The first negotiations between Yemen's warring sides in two years were scheduled to open last Thursday, but a Yemeni government delegation left after the Houthis refused to travel to Geneva.

The rebels had accused the UN of failing to guarantee the return of their delegation from Switzerland to the Yemeni capital and to secure the evacuation of wounded rebels to Oman.

This Thursday's talks also covered the "necessary measures" needed for fresh talks to take place "as soon as possible," Saba reported.

Hamid Assem, a member of the Houthi delegation, told the AFP news agency on Friday there had been no breakthrough towards resuming talks.

"There has not been progress regarding the discussions while we have not received the guarantees," he said by phone.

On Tuesday, Griffiths had told the UN Security Council he would travel to Muscat the following day in a bid to revive talks.

His schedule would also take in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, held by the Houthis, and Saudi Arabia, which leads the coalition against the rebels.

Clashes around Hodeidah

After the failure of the Geneva talks, deadly clashes resumed around Yemen's port city of Hodeida which is held by the Houthis and serves as a vital entry point for aid.

Medical sources in Hodeida province said on Thursday that nearly 50 people, including seven rebel fighters, had been killed in the past 24 hours alone.

The Houthis launched a counter-offensive on Thursday to retake control of two major supply routes into Hodeidah, which Yemeni government forces said they had seized the day before, military sources told AFP.

"The liberation of Hodeida is the key to the solution in Yemen," the UAE's foreign affairs minister Anwar Gargash wrote on Twitter.

"The noose is tightening" on Hodeida, added Gargash, whose government is a key part of the Saudi-led coalition.

Since Riyadh and its allies intervened in Yemen in March 2015, abut 10,000 people have been killed in a conflict which has sparked a grave humanitarian crisis.

Speaking to the Reuters news agency on Thursday, Meritxell Relano, Unicef's representative in Yemen, said: "The conflict has made Yemen a living hell for its children."