DUBAI (Dispatches) -- Senior U.S. officials have held a first direct meeting with officials from Yemen’s popular Ansarullah movement, Reuters reported Wednesday, citing two sources familiar with the matter said.
The discussions, which have not been officially made public by either side, took place in the Omani capital Muscat on Feb. 26 between U.S. Yemen envoy Timothy Lenderking and Yemen’s chief negotiator Muhammad Abdusalam, the sources said.
Yemen’s popular forces have been administering capital Sana’a since 2014 and control most populated areas. Saudi Arabia has waged a losing battle against them with tacit Western support since 2015 in a war that has killed more than 200,000 and created what the United Nations considers the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis.
The Saudis and Yemen’s resistance groups have been negotiating for more than a year towards a truce, directly and under the auspices of the United Nations, as Riyadh has looked for a face-saving exit from its worst quagmire.
The Muscat meeting, one of the sources said, was part of a new "carrot and stick” approach by U.S. President Joe Biden, who last month declared a halt to U.S. support for the Saudi-led war. Biden has also reversed a decision by his predecessor Donald Trump to designate the Ansarullah movement as terrorists.
The U.S. Treasury Department on Tuesday imposed new sanctions on two Ansarullah military leaders, after the movement stepped up retaliatory attacks on Saudi Arabia and intensified an offensive on the ground in Yemen’s Ma’rib.
Abdulsalam said on Wednesday the United States’ sanctions are proof that it is prolonging the war and making the humanitarian crisis worse, the Al-Masirah TV channel reported.
"America is condemning itself and confirming that it is not thinking about stopping the aggression (..) and that it stands behind the prolongation of the war and the exacerbation of the humanitarian crisis,” he said.
The United States on Tuesday imposed
sanctions on Mansur Al-Sa’adi, the Ansarullah Naval Forces Chief of Staff, and Ahmad Ali Ahsan al-Hamzi, the commander of Yemeni Air Force and Air Defense Forces.
According to Reuters, Lenderking met Abdusalam in Muscat after meeting with Saudi and UN officials in Riyadh. He also visited the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar during his regional tour. The UAE in particular has played a major role in the Saudi war on Yemen.
The sources said Lenderking had pressed the Ansarullah to halt the Ma’rib offensive and encouraged the movement to engage actively with Riyadh in virtual talks on a ceasefire.
Yemen’s resistance fighters have reached the gates of the strategic city, saying the only hurdle preventing them from overrunning Ma’rib is their fears about the lives of civilians who are being used as human shields by Saudi-backed militants and their takfiri allies.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson said Lenderking has been meeting with regional senior government officials and has met with UN special envoy Martin Griffiths during his trip.
In ceasefire talks, Saudi Arabia has been seeking assurances on border security. The Saudi level of representation at virtual talks was recently raised, with Riyadh’s ambassador to Yemen, Muhammad al-Jaber, now speaking with Abdulsalam, the sources said.
Riyadh wants a buffer zone inside Yemen along the border. Yemen’s resistance forces want an end to blockades on the Red Sea port of Hudadah and Sanaa airport.
Many Saudi cities, including capital Riyadh, have come under retaliatory attacks by Yemeni forces.
A new drone attack was launched on Saudi Arabia’s Abha airport, spokesman for Yemeni armed forces Brigadier General Yahya Saree said in a statement posted on his Twitter page on Tuesday evening.
He said the Yemeni army and allied fighters from Popular Committees used a domestically-manufactured Qasef-2K (Striker-2K) combat drone in the operation.
The unmanned aerial vehicle struck military aircraft hangars at the airport with great precision, according to Saree.
It came a few days after Yemeni army troops and Popular Committees fighters targeted the Saudi soil with 15 unmanned aerial vehicles and a ballistic missile.
Saree said in a press conference on Sunday that sensitive positions and places in the Saudi capital Riyadh had been struck with a Zolfaqar ballistic missile and nine Sammad-3 (Invincible-3) combat drones.
If an agreement is reached, one of the sources said, it would be taken to UN envoy Griffiths to prepare for broader peace talks that would include former Saudi-backed government, now based in the port of Aden.
The war, stalemated for years, has shifted to the gas-producing region of Ma’rib where hundreds of Saudi mercenaries have been killed, the most deadly clashes since 2018.
On Wednesday, heavy clashes were reported around Ma’rib and in Ta’izz, another heavily contested city.