Airlines halt flights to violence-hit Yemen capital

Yemeni supporters of Shi'ite rebels chant slogans during a rally in the capital Sanaa on September 19, 2014. International airlines suspended flights to Yemen as a decade-old rebellion encroached on the capital and a UN envoy scrambled to thrash
Yemeni supporters of Shi'ite rebels chant slogans during a rally in the capital Sanaa on September 19, 2014. International airlines suspended flights to Yemen as a decade-old rebellion encroached on the capital and a UN envoy scrambled to thrash out an elusive peace deal after a spike in violence. -- PHOTO: AFP

SANAA (AFP) - International airlines suspended flights to Yemen as a decade-old rebellion encroached on the capital and a UN envoy scrambled to thrash out an elusive peace deal after a spike in violence.

Pro-government forces are battling to prevent the capital Sanaa falling into the hands of rebels who have swept from their stronghold in the rugged northwestern mountains to the doorstep of the city.

Yemen has been gripped by unrest since an uprising that led to the ouster of autocratic president Ali Abdullah Saleh two years ago, with Al-Qaeda attacks on the security forces adding to pressure on the government.

The Civil Aviation Authority said international carriers had decided to suspend flights to Sanaa for 24 hours.

In northern Sanaa, Yemeni warplanes bombed two rebel positions, witnesses said.

The state television broadcaster was briefly forced off the air, blaming "incessant fire" from the rebels, a day after dozens were killed in clashes between rebels and pro-government fighters.

A member of the Yemeni negotiating team in the UN-sponsored peace efforts said the rebels were close to signing an agreement to stop fighting.

UN envoy Jamal Benomar was more cautious but said that the two sides were making progress, after he held three days of talks with rebel chief Abdelmalek al-Huthi in the north.

"I have tried to narrow the gap between the two parties and we've agreed on a number of points that can serve as the basis of an accord," Benomar told reporters.

A member of the rebel leader's delegation said "98 percent of the problems have been resolved".

The rebels, who have been camped north of Sanaa for weeks, belong to the Zaidi Shi'ite community, a minority in the mainly Sunni nation who are believed to be trying to establish themselves as the main political force in the region.

Also known as Huthis or Ansarullah, they have battled the government for years from their heartland of Saada, complaining of marginalisation.

This week, they rejected an offer from President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi to name a new prime minister and reduce a controversial fuel price rise, two of their core demands.

The wave of violence intensified on Thursday with the advance of rebels on the suburb of Shamlan north of the capital, and through the night on Thalathin Street linking the area to Imam University, which is run by Sunni fundamentalists.

Fighting then spread to the offices of Yemen's state television, which was hit by mortar fire, and the three channels were off the air Friday.

The authorities said the rebels managed to advance and "take control of positions of the security forces and the army at Shamlan" and along Thalathin Street.

The country's high security commission warned the rebels to withdraw, with a spokesman saying "legal action... will be take to recapture these positions".

Early Friday, residents said government forces managed to reclaim some of the positions they lost earlier.

Hadi has already agreed to involve the rebels in the formation of a new government to replace the unpopular administration that imposed austerity measures, including a fuel price hike, earlier this year.

But the rebels are also demanding posts in key state institutions.