GENEVA – Yemen's Shiite Houthi rebels arrived in Geneva for U.N.-brokered peace talks on Tuesday after a delay in Djibouti, while new U.N. figures showed the civilian death toll in the country continuing to mount amid little sign of compromise from the warring factions.
The Geneva talks are aimed at ending months of fighting that prompted a Saudi-led coalition to launch an air campaign against the Houthis and their allies nearly three months ago.
The rebel delegation from Yemen's capital, Sanaa, set off Sunday but arrived a day later than expected on Tuesday morning. They blamed the delay on Egypt, claiming they weren't given permission to fly through Cairo.
It's unclear how long the talks -- at least initially involving mediators shuttling between the parties, rather than face-to-face encounters -- will last. U.N. spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said the start of Ramadan later this week may affect whether the delegations stay in Geneva.
"It is a golden opportunity to try and resolve this crisis," Fawzi said. "Whether they will agree to extend their stay beyond the beginning of Ramadan is anybody's guess."
Yemen's conflict pits the Houthis -- who seized Sanaa last year -- and military units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh against an array of forces, including southern separatists, local and tribal militias, Islamic militants and loyalists of exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
The delegation from Sanaa includes loyalists of Saleh and representatives of other political groups.
Figures released Tuesday, meanwhile, underlined the urgency of finding a solution. Between Thursday and Monday, 50 civilians were killed -- among them 18 children -- and a further 111 were wounded, the U.N. human rights office said. That brings the total number of civilians killed since March 26 to 1,412, with 3,423 wounded, it added.
UNICEF, the U.N. children's agency, said at least 279 children have been killed and 402 wounded since March 26, and that children are being used by armed groups to man checkpoints or carry arms.
Speaking at an emergency session on Yemen at the headquarters of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Hadi reiterated his position that the talks must focus on implementing U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216, which calls on the rebels to lay down their arms, give up captured territory and cease actions undermining the exiled government.
Mohamed Abdallah Alzuberi, a Houthi delegation official, said in Geneva that "there can be no consultation with those who are not legitimate."
"As a political power inside Yemen, we have agreed that the (current) head of the government is not part of the dialogue, as we are the ones who should be choosing the head of the government," he said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pressed for a halt to fighting at the start of Ramadan, the Muslim month of dawn-to-dusk fasting, as he launched the talks Monday.
"Our ambition is for a truce to happen over Ramadan, but a truce isn't enough. We want to solve the problem and stop the aggression," Alzuberi said.
On Monday, the exiled government's foreign minister, Riad Yassin, said such a limited cease-fire "has to run parallel to the withdrawal of Houthi militias and those of Saleh from all cities and governorates of Yemen."