Sanaa: Long-awaited UN-backed talks between Yemen's warring parties were sputtering Friday before even starting, with Houthi rebels refusing to travel to Geneva and fresh fighting breaking out on the ground.
The Houthis, powerful armed tribes locked in a war with Yemen's Saudi-backed government, have refused to take off from the rebel-held capital of Sanaa unless the United Nations meets a list of conditions, which includes securing a safe return from Geneva to Sanaa for their delegation.
At the same time, multiple military sources reported Friday that forces from the government alliance were attempting to close in on rebel-held Hodeida.
The fate of the embattled port city had been scheduled for discussion at the Geneva conference, which was meant to be the first meeting between the warring sides since 2016.
The talks had been scheduled to formally open Thursday but were put on hold, leaving UN envoy Martin Griffiths scrambling to save them.
Over the past two days, Griffiths has hosted a number of meetings with the government delegation, which arrived in Geneva on Wednesday, and diplomats from countries with influence in Yemen's bloody conflict.
But Friday evening, the envoy's office said he would give a press conference Saturday morning, when he was broadly expected to announce an end to the talks before they even got off the ground.
The announcement came after the Houthis' Supreme Revolutionary Council said Friday they were "increasingly suspicious that the coalition intended to insult" the rebels.
It accused the military alliance of planning to strand the rebel delegation in Djibouti, where their plane was to make a stop en route to Geneva.
The Houthis hinted they feared a repeat of 2016, when 108 days of talks in Kuwait broke down and a rebel delegation was stranded in Oman for three months due to an air blockade, the council said in a statement on Telegram.
The Iran-backed Houthis also demand the evacuation of their wounded fighters from Sanaa to Oman.
But in Geneva Friday, Yemen's Foreign Minister Khaled Yamani, who is leading the government delegation, insisted the Houthi delay was evidence of infighting.
"We came to Geneva .. ready and willing to delve into talks" on confidence-building, Yamani told UAE's Sky News.
He slammed the Houthi "excuses" for not arriving on time as "an attempt to cover up something critical, and that is that the insurgents are arguing about who among them will represent them in Geneva."
Saudi Arabia and its allies have meanwhile said they have already granted the Houthis clearance to fly, accusing the rebels of intransigence.
Yemeni Prime Minister Ahmed bin Dagher accused the rebels of "speaking no language other than force" and "using negotiations to secure more arms", in a tweet on Thursday.
Among humanitarians, hopes for the Geneva talks have been high.
On Friday, the heads of 10 international aid organisations, including Save the Children, the International Rescue Committee and Mercy Corps, sent an open letter to UN chief Antonio Guterres, describing Griffiths' efforts as "nothing short of heroic".
"His consultations this week represent the best hope for peace that Yemen has seen in over two years," they wrote, also urging Guterres to personally urge the parties in Yemen to agree to "an immediate ceasefire."
Washington, which supports the Saudi-led coalition, meanwhile voiced disappointment at the lack of progress in Geneva.
"It's disappointing that the delegation from Sanaa isn't here or hasn't been able to be here to actually produce the result that we wanted to see," US ambassador to Yemen Matthew Tueller told reporters in Geneva.
He said it remained unclear if the Houthis might still arrive, but that if they did not show up, "we'll regroup and try to find a way to bring again the group in Sanaa together with the government so that we can find some way to give Yemeni people hope".