UN Chief: Stop Fighting for Ramadan

SANAA, Yemen (AP) -- U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pressed Monday for a halt to fighting in Yemen at the beginning of Ramadan, which starts later this week, as the world body launched talks aimed at brokering peace.

Ban, who met in Geneva with some of the delegations involved in the talks, said he had "emphasized the importance of having another humanitarian pause, at least two weeks."

"I'm urging them that, particularly during this Ramadan --- which is a period for peace for people, and praying for peace --- they must stop," he told reporters.

Such a pause won't be enough in itself to get aid to all needy Yemenis "given the obstacles to access and the scale of destruction," Ban said. He called for the warring factions to go further and agree on local cease-fires, withdrawing armed groups from cities.

A previous five-day pause was violated repeatedly, and aid groups said it was hardly sufficient to reach millions in the Arab world's poorest country.

Yemen's conflict pits exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi against the Shiite rebels known as Houthis --- who seized the capital, Sanaa, last year --- and military units loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. A Saudi-led coalition began launching airstrikes against the Houthis and their allies on March 26, shortly after Hadi fled a rebel advance on the south.

The talks in Geneva are expected to last two or three days. The U.N. has said that they will start off as proximity talks --- in which mediators meet separately with the various factions --- with the hope of eventually getting everyone to sit around the same table.

The final delegations are expected to arrive in Geneva late Monday afternoon or early evening, Ban said.

The Houthi delegation left Sanaa on Sunday, a day after a plane meant to carry the rebels and their allies to the talks left Yemen without the delegates on board.

"The parties have a responsibility to end the fighting and begin a real process of peace and reconciliation," Ban said, arguing that "the region simply cannot sustain another open wound like Syria and Libya."

Inside the country however, there were few signs of the violence abating, with airstrikes continuing in the capital and several other cities including the southern port of Aden, central Taiz, and Houthi stronghold Saada.

The Houthis said they consolidated control of a province bordering Saudi Arabia and plan to move forces to the frontier.

Houthi leader Zif al-Shami said the move followed heavy fighting with tribes and forces loyal to Hadi, especially in Hazm, the capital of Jawf province, leaving dozens of civilians dead.

Houthi-run television showed dozens of bodies lying in the streets of Hazm, while doctors and eyewitnesses backed up reports of the deaths.

Security officials who spoke anonymously as they weren't authorized to brief journalists said that the Saudi-led air campaign has been bombing the city since the Houthis took it over a day earlier, with airstrikes again picking up this morning.

In Geneva, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad al-Hussein said he was "gravely concerned" about the high number of civilian casualties the conflict was generating.

"Indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks are being used on densely populated areas," he said in a statement. "Such attacks must be thoroughly investigated, and greater protection of civilians must be ensured by all sides."

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Associated Press writer Geir Moulson contributed to this report from Berlin.

(KA)