A Saudi delegation was in Yemen’s capital on Sunday to negotiate a potential new truce with the Iran-backed Huthi rebels who control the city, diplomats said, as Riyadh seeks a way out of the war.
Huthi media showed the group’s political leader, Mahdi al-Mashat, shaking hands and meeting with Saudi officials including the kingdom’s ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed Al-Jaber.
The Saudi officials are “in Sanaa to discuss moving forward to create peace in Yemen,” said a Yemeni diplomat based in the Gulf region, information that was confirmed by a second diplomat.
Saudi officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The delegation’s arrival comes roughly a month after China helped broker a surprise rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That deal has fuelled hopes for progress on ending the Yemen conflict that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and triggered what the United Nations called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The top Saudi and Iranian diplomats met in Beijing on Thursday, pledging to work together to bring “security and stability” to their turbulent region.
Omani mediators arrived in Sanaa on Saturday.
The Huthis seized the city in 2014, triggering the conflict with the internationally recognised government which has been backed for eight years by a military coalition led by Riyadh.
A truce announced roughly a year ago has significantly reduced active hostilities within Yemen, and is still largely respected even though it officially expired in October.
Read more: Prospects for ending Yemen war as Saudi and Iran engage in peace talks
– ‘Fast’ progress –
A Yemeni government source, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, said on Saturday that the Saudis and Huthis had agreed in principle on a six-month truce to pave the way for three months of talks on establishing a two-year “transition” for the war-torn country.
The deal is expected to fulfil key Huthi goals, including paying salaries of civil servants in Huthi-controlled areas and lifting operational restrictions on Huthi-controlled airports and ports.
Saudi analyst Hesham Alghannam said the apparent diplomatic momentum was a sign that the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement was bearing fruit.
“Progress on Yemen was always a priority for the Saudis. But without Iranian (cooperation) things would not go as fast as what we are witnessing now,” said Alghannam, head of national security programmes at the Naif Arab University for Security Sciences in Riyadh.
“In the past, talking to (the Huthis) was not very helpful, to say the least.”
The head of the Huthis’ prisoners of war committee told rebel media on Saturday that 13 prisoners freed by the Saudis had arrived in Sanaa, in exchange for one Saudi released earlier.
Saudi officials have not commented on the report.
In early March, the United Nations confirmed that the rebels and Yemen’s internationally recognised government had agreed to exchange more than 880 prisoners.
Read more: Yemen peace talks intensify after Iran-Saudi deal
– ‘Exhausted from the war’ –
Sanaa residents told AFP on Sunday that they hoped for a breakthrough that would go beyond a Saudi exit, stressing the need for a broader resolution among their deeply fractured country’s many religious, regional and political groups.
“The visit of a Saudi delegation to Sanaa bodes well. We want the war to end. We are tired,” said 23-year-old Ali Hussein.
Abd al-Salam Shamir, 29, said: “The country is exhausted from the war, and we want all politicians to be one hand now in building Yemen.”
A 46-year-old teacher in the port city of Hodeida, who gave his name as Mansour, bemoaned the heavy economic toll of the fighting.
Like other civil servants in Huthi-controlled zones, Mansour, who declined to give his surname, has not received his salary in seven years.