RIYADH/ADEN: A Saudi delegation has concluded a round of peace talks in the Yemeni capital Sanaa with the Houthi movement, whose officials cited progress and said further discussions were needed to iron out remaining differences.
In a significant confidence-building measure, the conclusion of the talks was followed on Friday by an announcement from the International Committee of the Red Cross that the release and swap of nearly 900 detainees by the two sides in the conflict had started.
Saudi Arabia, which leads a coalition that has been battling the Iranian-aligned group since 2015, is seeking a permanent ceasefire agreement to end its military involvement in a war that has killed tens of thousands of people and left millions hungry.
Two Yemeni sources said the Saudi team departed Sanaa on Thursday following a visit that signalled movement to build on an expired UN-brokered truce and followed last month's deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore ties.
Houthi politburo official Mohammed al-Bukhaiti described the negotiations as "going well". Another Houthi official, Abdulmalik Alejri, said on Twitter that "with determination and honest intentions remaining difficulties can be resolved".
Sources have told Reuters that the Saudi-Houthi talks facilitated by Oman were focused on a ceasefire, full reopening of Houthi-controlled ports and Sanaa airport, payment of public sector wages, rebuilding efforts, and the withdrawal of foreign forces from Yemen.
Two Yemeni sources, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the parties could agree on an extended truce deal as they work out remaining differences.
The main sticking points include payment of civil servant salaries – which the Houthis have insisted include armed forces – using oil revenue and a timeline for foreign forces to exit the country, three sources familiar with the negotiations said.
The conflict, in which the coalition intervened against the Houthis after they ousted the Saudi-backed government from Sanaa in late 2014, is a multifaceted one with several Yemeni factions vying for influence.
The Houthis are the de facto authorities in northern Yemen. The internationally recognised government is represented by the Political Leadership Council (PLC), which was formed under Saudi auspices last year and took over power from Yemen's president-in-exile.
The United Nations and the PLC are not directly part of the Saudi-Houthi talks. The PLC was created to solidify the anti-Houthi bloc but has been beset by differences among Yemeni factions.
The Southern Transitional Council (STC), a southern separatist group that is part of the anti-Houthi alliance and the PLC, told Reuters it supported these peace initiatives but would not accept certain conditions.
These include oil revenue sharing between the north and south, the merging of the two central bank branches or the use of southern resources to pay salaries, STC official Amr Al Bidh said on Tuesday.
The conflict is widely seen as one of several proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the region's Sunni Muslim and Shi'ite powers.
They have agreed to restore diplomatic ties severed in 2016 as Riyadh moves to manage regional tensions and to focus on economic priorities.