An official from the party of Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh confirmed on Thursday that talks aimed at brokering a "peaceful solution" to the country's conflict were under way in Cairo. But fighting continued to rage in several cities, and few details were available about the discussions' significance.
Abel Shuja, a member of Saleh's Congress Party, told Reuters the negotiations in the Egyptian capital included party officials and representatives from the US, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates — but not from Saudi Arabia. The UAE is a member of the Saudi-led coalition that has bombed Saleh loyalist-backed Houthi rebels since late March. The US and the UK have provided logistical and material support to the coalition, which has the blessing of Yemen's current president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Hadi, who fled Yemen in March amidst a Houthi offensive, is currently being hosted by the Saudi royal family in Riyadh.
After ruling Yemen for more than three decades, Saleh was forced out of power in 2012 during the Arab Spring. The Congress Party, however, retained a great deal of power, as did Saleh behind the scenes. After stepping down, the former president found an unlikely ally in the Houthis, who hail from a Shia minority in Yemen's north, and against whom Saleh waged a series of wars during the 2000s. The Houthis have long claimed they are left out of Yemen's political process, and once more took up arms when they felt similarly marginalized during Hadi's presidency. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, views the Houthis as a proxy of Shia Iran.
The State Department did not immediately reply to questions about US involvement in the reported Cairo talks, and it was unclear which American officials, if any, were in fact present in Egypt. Also obscured was whether the talks, which reportedly have not included Houthi representatives, represented a fissure between the rebels and Saleh.
Coalition airstrikes meanwhile continued unabated in Sana'a, Yemen's capital, and elsewhere, while officials in the southern port of Aden reported the airport there was struck with rocket fire, presumably from Houthi positions. Last week, the Houthis and their allies were dislodged from most of Aden by local fighting forces backed by coalition naval and air power, as well as ground forces and military vehicles from the United Arab Emirates.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, fighters from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — the group's affiliate in Yemen — fought alongside the militias and the Emiratis. Besides al Qaeda, not all of those fighting the Houthis in the south support President Hadi, and some have been pictured carrying the flag of South Yemen — a separate country that existed until 1990, and which remains an aspiration for many.
On Tuesday, the UN reported that at least 165 civilians, including 53 children and 23 women, were killed in Yemen between July 3 and July 15. The UN's human rights office said the majority of the civilian deaths and injuries during that period resulted from air strikes. On April 6, strikes on markets in the Amran and Lahj governorates left at least 76 civilians dead. Since March 26, more than 1,700 civilians have been killed in fighting and from airstrikes.
After their setback in Aden, the Houthis and their allies indiscriminately shelled the nearby town of Dar Saad on Sunday. Doctors Without Borders reported this week that almost 100 people had died and some 200 were wounded in the attacks. The group estimated that 80 percent of the victims were civilians.
Earlier this month, the UN announced a humanitarian pause in Yemen, meant to begin at midnight on July 10. It was roundly ignored by all parties.
Following the fighting in Aden, the UN's World Food Program (WFP) said one of its ships, carrying 500,000 liters of fuel, was able to dock in the port for the first time on Tuesday. A de-facto blockade enforced by the coalition of Yemen has seen supplies of basic necessities reduced to a trickle; last week the WFP, citing extensive waiting periods for ships to berth and offload cargo, said a 3,000 metric ton shipment of wheat flour destined for Hodeidah Port had to be discarded after it was found to be "infested." The WFP normally supplies wheat grain to countries, where it is then milled, but due to fuel shortages in Yemen, there is little capacity to refine the grain.
The UN classifies Yemen as among the direst humanitarian crises in the world, and aid agencies have struggled to meet the emergency needs of its residents. In 20 of the country's 22 governorates, water is either unavailable or only supplied sporadically, according to the UN. Potable water is in particularly short supply in Aden, where fighting has destroyed much of its already impoverished infrastructure. Earlier this month, officials told VICE News that an outbreak of Dengue fever was infecting roughly 150 people a day in Aden, and killing around 11. Countrywide, humanitarian officials estimate that 1.6 million children under five are believed to already suffer from acute malnutrition and require medical treatment.
In April, Saudi Arabia pledged $274 million to completely meet the UN's "flash" appeal for the country. The money has yet to be delivered, and the Saudis have insisted on reaching agreements with specific UN agencies before disbursing the funds through a special center it established in Riyadh. Aid workers have criticized the Saudis, who they say have tried to apply restrictions to how and where the money is disbursed. On Thursday, a spokesperson for the UN's office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs said she did not know what the Saudis were planning.
Reem Nada, a communications officer for the WFP — which was promised $142.8 million by the Saudis — told VICE News her agency needed $69 million to continue operations in Yemen just until the end of August. The UN's current humanitarian appeal of $1.6 billion is only 15 percent met.
Still, she said the docking of the WFP ship loaded with fuel in Aden was a positive sign. Until this week, "WFP tried to send humanitarian assistance to the ports of Aden, but all those attempts were blocked by the security situation," she said. This month, ships have had more luck at the eastern port of Hodeida, she added.
The fighting in Yemen has caused tens of thousands of its residents to flee across the sea to Djibouti and Somalia. But migrants from Africa have also continued to travel to Yemen, as they did before March, in spite of the danger. Since the start of coalition bombing, the UN's refugee agency counted some 10,500 arrivals in Yemen. Many, it said, "are tricked into making the journey by smugglers who tell them that the conflict is over and all is safe in Yemen."