GENEVA (AFP) - Fisticuffs broke out Thursday at a Geneva press conference by Yemeni rebels when their leader was attacked by a slipper-wielding woman as the UN's mediator scrambled to revive deadlocked peace talks.
The dramatic attack underscored the deep divisions between the various sides involved in trying to get Iran-backed rebels and the Saudi-backed exiled government to agree to a badly-needed humanitarian truce.
Ansarullah member Hamza al-Huthi, who heads the rebel delegation at the talks, was addressing reporters when a woman in a headscarf barged in and threw a slipper at him.
The delegate, whose Shi'ite group is more commonly known as the Huthis, promptly threw it back.
She was quickly joined by six men who shouted slogans against the rebels and started raining blows at them, screaming, "Killers, you are spreading death and disease in South Yemen."
The melee lasted several minutes with bottles hurled before the intruders were hauled out.
The woman's gesture was immediately hailed on social media in Aden, the main port city in South Yemen, with congratulatory tweets.
Once order was restored, Al-Huthi said the rebels wanted "a humanitarian truce but it is not wanted by Saudi Arabia and its allies" who launched air strikes in Yemen on March 26.
'WAR BENEFITS AL-QAEDA'
The rebel delegate said the stalled talks would continue until at least Friday, adding: "We hope these preliminary talks will end up in some kind of accord... a transition that will hopefully lead to free, fair and transparent elections."
He accused the Saudis of using "nitrogen bombs and other horrible arms" to "massacre women and children" and said Al-Qaeda in Yemen was "exploiting the situation and using the aggression to extend its influence over the region."
Yaser al-Awadi, another member of the rebel delegation, said the "Yemen war has become an economic investment for Britain, France and the United States."
"Their arms factories are working full-time for two months to furnish and supply arms," he said.
"Our women and children are being used as guinea pigs to test new arms," Awadi said at the chaotic press conference.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon launched the high-stakes negotiations on Monday with an appeal for a badly-needed two-week humanitarian truce during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.
The negotiations, in their fourth day, have been bogged down by the government's insistence that the rebels must withdraw from the vast territory they control, including the capital Sanaa.
It has also protested the size of the rebel delegation which is more than double the agreed number of 10.
Awadi described the demand from the government delegation and the UN for the rebels to whittle down their numbers as "nonsense".
"We represent 13 political parties and we're not going to allow one political party to speak for the other," he told reporters.
"Each one must be represented. Everyone must represent themselves around one table," he said.
Huthi rebels and their allies, troops faithful to ousted president Ali Abdallah Saleh, favour a truce but are refusing to withdraw as demanded by the government in exile.
Un spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said the the UN's special envoy for Yemen, Mauritanian diplomat Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, had a "very constructive conversation" with the rebel side on Wednesday evening.
"He is now shuttling between delegations in their hotels," he told AFP, adding that the envoy on Thursday had met with the government delegation.
"And he's working the phones constantly," Fawzi said.