ADEN: Yemen's newly-appointed Vice President Khaled Bahah, a widely respected figure named this week to shore up the legitimacy of the exiled government, said yesterday he hoped to avert a Saudi-led invasion to restore unity to the country.
Arab military exercises planned for Saudi Arabia have raised speculation that Riyadh is considering land operations in Yemen, after three weeks of air strikes that failed to halt advances by Shi'ite fighters now in control of most of the
President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi named Bahah, a former prime minister and diplomat, as his deputy this week in an attempt to widen support for his government, now exiled to Saudi Arabia since the Iran-backed Houthis, seized the capital and launched a lightning advance on the south.
In another setback, the UN envoy to Yemen resigned
after failing to avert large-scale
violence, dealing a blow to hopes of a diplomatic solution to the conflict between rebels and Saudi-backed government forces.
Jamal Benomar had tried desperately to avert all-out conflict as the Shi'ite Houthi rebels seized the capital last September and then placed Hadi under effective house
arrest in January.
But Hadi's escape to second city Aden the following month to rally opposition against the rebels effectively brought negotiations to an end and Benomar's efforts to revive them came to nothing as the rebels advanced on the president's last refuge, triggering his flight to Saudi Arabia.
Benomar retained the support of UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who has repeatedly called for a return to the negotiating table, but he lost the confidence of Riyadh and its allies.
The UN chief 'greatly appreciates the tireless efforts Benomar has made over the years to promote consensus and trust on a peaceful way forward in Yemen,' a UN statement said.
Among the candidates to replace him is Mauritanian diplomat Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, who currently heads the UN Ebola mission in Accra, a UN official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Last month, a Gulf diplomatic official accused the UN envoy of appeasing the rebels and their allies as they overran Saudi Arabia's impoverished but strategically important neighbour.
'They pressed to redraw the political map of Yemen and, in a way, they were encouraged by Benomar,' the official said.
The UN says the latest Yemen conflict has already killed 600 people, wounded 2,200 and
Bahah is one of the few figures in Yemen whose popularity crosses regional and sectarian lines.
Speaking in the Saudi capital Riyadh at his first news conference since taking the post, he said: 'We are still hoping that there is no ground campaign announced with the air campaign.'
Bahah said a ceasefire must precede any peace deal and no initiatives would be considered until Hadi and his government return to Aden.
However, there is no sign of compromise on either side.
A senior Houthi official said he rejected the prospect that Hadi could return to the country, accusing him of 'treason'.
Mohammed Al Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthi movement's politburo, added that the Saudi-led bombing campaign against the must stop 'immediately and without any conditions'.
The Houthis have already formed an alliance of convenience with army units loyal to former Yemeni President Ali
Establishing the Hadi government's legitimacy is central to the Saudi-led campaign to drive back the Houthis and prevent Iran from gaining influence.
Foreign countries have evacuated their personnel, including the US, which has been waging a drone war against Yemen's branch of Al Qaeda.
Nearby shipping lanes, including the narrow Bab El Mandeb passage through which nearly four million barrels of oil are shipped daily en route to the Red Sea and Suez Canal, could also be at risk from the conflict.
Heavy fighting broke out in and around the central Yemeni city of Taiz yesterday, residents said, pitting a pro-government army brigade and tribesmen against the Houthis and army units allied to them.