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Yemeni rebel leader says they back UN peace talks in Geneva

A Yemeni man, who was stranded in Egypt after conflict broke out in Yemen, prays and kisses the ground after arriving at Sanaa airport, Yemen, Wednesday, May 20, 2015. The airport was opened temporarily as two planes, one from India and one from Egypt, arrived carrying more than 300 Yemeni. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — The United Nations set the date for peace talks on Yemen for next week in Geneva, while the Saudi-led coalition on Wednesday bombed Shiite rebels in at least five of the country’s northern provinces.

In a positive sign, the leader of the rebels known as Houthis backed the talks In Switzerland, saying they were the “only solution” for the conflict roiling his country. Abdul-Malek al-Houthi spoke just hours after the announcement from the U.N. that the talks would start in Geneva on May 28.

Earlier, Yemen’s U.N. Ambassador Khaled Alyemany said the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, now in exile in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, will also attend the talks, adding it would be represented at a high level, perhaps by the vice president.

But a top Hadi aide, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, reiterated earlier government demands that the Houthis first pull out of towns and cities, including the capital, Sanaa, which they captured in a power grab that started last year. He said that the government wouldn’t give up its condition for the talks.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon has urged all parties to engage “without pre-conditions,” stressing the only way to resolve Yemen’s conflict is an “inclusive, negotiated political settlement.” Ban was expected to attend the start of the Geneva talks.

The U.N.’s new envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, held meetings with rival political players in Yemen earlier this month. At the time, the Houthis expressed readiness to resume peace talks, insisting they take place in a “neutral” country.

But in his speech, broadcast on the rebels’ TV channel, al-Houthi gave no indication his forces would withdraw and instead called for new recruits and for his followers to open new training camps to confront the Saudi-led air campaign.

“There is only one solution,” al-Houthi said, “talks should be held in a neutral country.”

Western countries accuse Shiite power Iran of backing the Houthis militarily, something the Islamic Republic and the rebels deny. Both the Yemeni ambassador and the Saudi ambassador to the U.N., Abdallah Al-Moualimi, ruled out Iran’s participation in Geneva.

“There is no place for Iran in the consultations in Geneva,” Al-Moualimi told reporters. “They have not been playing a constructive role, and as such cannot be rewarded by having a seat at the table.”

U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said the format of the Geneva talks was still being worked out. He said Ahmed is expected to visit Tehran on Thursday for meetings with officials on Yemen, but did not give details.

The Yemeni ambassador, Alyemany, also said that former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Houthi figures who are on a U.N. sanctions list would not participate in the talks. The U.N. has not listed who has been invited.

The Security Council this year imposed an arms embargo on Houthi leaders and on Saleh, who stepped down in early 2012 as part of the U.N.-guided transition. It has also demanded the Houthis withdraw prior to any formal talks.

The rebels and their allies, Saleh loyalists, boycotted a gathering held in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, this week that was billed as a peace conference on Yemen.

Meanwhile, the Saudi-led coalition continued to pound the Houthis and their allies Wednesday in at least five northern provinces under rebel control, including Sanaa. In the western city of Ibb, warplanes struck a police commando camp run by Saleh’s loyalists, killing at least 12 and wounding 17, officials said.

In the strategic port city of Aden, the rebels and their allies randomly shelled residential areas, killing one woman and wounding three, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

The Houthis also continued to retaliate for the Saudi-led attacks by engaging in clashes in the border area of Jizan on Wednesday and killing one Saudi soldier, according to Saudi news site Sabq.

The Yemeni conflict has killed 1,820 people and wounded 7,330 since March 19, according to U.N. estimates, with nearly a half million people displaced through May 7.

Also Wednesday, international aid groups urged warring parties to agree to a ceasefire, saying a five-day truce that was breached several times and expired this week was not enough for humanitarian aid to be delivered.

“The amount of aid allowed in barely scratched the surface of the humanitarian catastrophe,” said Grace Ommer, Oxfam’s director for Yemen.

But the Saudi ambassador to the U.N., al-Moualimi, told reporters that any further humanitarian pauses would be a military decision and will be based on the situation on the ground, specifically, “whether the Houthis are complying with such a pause.”

In other developments, the U.N. said Wednesday that an Iranian ship with humanitarian supplies for Yemen was heading to Djibouti where the U.N. has its hub for the distribution of aid for Yemen. The ship, which had stirred controversy, was originally reported to be heading to Yemen’s Hodeida port.

Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian told the semi-official ISNA news agency that the vessel called Nejat, or Rescue, will travel to Yemen in “full coordination with the U.N.”

The remarks were an effort to deescalate the situation surrounding the ship. Abdollahian said Iran will abide by the U.N. protocol, which requires aid to be routed through Djibouti.

Yemen’s conflict has also stranded thousands of Yemenis abroad, after the Saudi-led coalition imposed an air and sea blockade. On Wednesday, 352 Yemenis aboard two planes, from Egypt and India, landed in Sanaa, according to airport officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

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Anna reported from the United Nations. Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United nations and Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.

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