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Yemen peace talks end with no major breakthrough

UN special envoy is expected to announce a new round of meetings, likely starting in mid-January, to try to end Yemen conflict
UN special envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed after talks end in Switzerland (AFP)

Fighting raged on Sunday between Yemen's warring factions on the final day of UN-backed peace talks that have made no major breakthrough in the face of repeated ceasefire violations.

UN special envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed announced a new round of meetings aimed to take place on 14 January, according to a source close to the Houthi delegation.

A halt to the violence is sorely needed in the Arabian Peninsula's poorest nation, where the UN says fighting since March has killed thousands of people and left around 80 percent of the population needing humanitarian aid.

The sides, who have been meeting since Tuesday behind closed doors, agreed on Saturday to create "a neutral military committee" to monitor the collapsing ceasefire and another committee to oversee the delivery of humanitarian aid, sources from both sides said.

But delegates said substantial progress had proved elusive.

"The negotiations have basically failed," said a source with the delegation representing both the Iran-backed Houthi militia and renegade troops still loyal to wealthy ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

In a UN statement, the special envoy praised the "serious progress" made in "identifying a framework for negotiations towards a comprehensive settlement".

The participants also agreed to release all prisoners of war once a "permanent ceasefire is in place" as well as lifting "all forms of blockades".

He told AFP that the ceasefire, which was meant to facilitate the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian aid, was "still-born".

"We have not achieved any results," agreed a source in President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi's government delegation.

The talks have among other things stumbled on the question of prisoners, with the Houthis demanding swaps, while the pro-government forces want the Houthis to first liberate a number of its captives, including the president's brother, several sources said.

The Houthi militiamen advanced from their northern strongholds to occupy the capital in September 2014.

The conflict has escalated dramatically since Saudi-led air strikes against the Houthis began in March, with more than 5,800 people killed and more than 27,000 wounded since then, according to UN figures.

No end to violence

Yemen's much-violated ceasefire will be extended for seven days after it officially expires on Monday, the head of the government negotiation team said on Sunday at UN-brokered talks in Switzerland.

"The truce will be extended for seven more days and will then be automatically extended if it is respected by the other party," Foreign Minister Abdel Malak al-Mekhlafi told reporters in Bern, referring to the Houthi rebels.

Loyalists on Sunday attacked rebel positions in the northern Jawf province after seizing the provincial capital two days earlier from the Houthi militia, pro-government sources said.

Coalition air strikes hit a militia rocket launch pad in Jawf, rebel positions in the north of the western Hudeida province and an army camp in the Houthi-held capital Sanaa.

The Houthis meanwhile claimed to have caused casualties and equipment damage in a rocket attack on a coalition military base in Marib province east of Sanaa, their sabanews.net website reported.

The coalition did not immediately confirm this.

Military sources said that pro-government forces attacked militia positions in southern Shabwa province, most of which is under loyalist control.

They reported casualties as the troops sought to retake the oil-rich Usaylan region from the Houthis.

Saudi Arabia meanwhile said a missile fired from Yemen on Saturday struck the border city of Najran, killing three civilians - a Saudi and two Indian workers.

Pro-government forces kept up pressure in Sanaa province's Nihm district this weekend after significant gains in Marib province east of the capital.

Forces loyal to Hadi, and allied tribes in the area, laid siege to Nihm's Fardha military base northeast of the capital.

Despite the proximity, the roughly 40 kilometres separating Nihm from Sanaa is mostly rugged mountainous terrain.

A ceasefire which began with the peace talks on Tuesday and was set to continue for at least seven days has failed to hold.

At least 68 people were killed on Thursday near the northern town of Haradh, which loyalists seized the same day, military and tribal sources said.

The UN envoy to Yemen was "deeply concerned at the numerous reports of violations of the cessation of hostilities", his office said late Friday.

Ould Cheikh Ahmed "urges all parties to respect this agreement and allow unhindered access for the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the most affected districts of Yemen," the statement said.

The special envoy has held several sessions with participants during the talks, the statement added.

"A coordination and de-escalation committee was created to strengthen adherence to the cessation of hostilities," the statement said.

The envoy was due to hold a press conference in Bern later Sunday evening.