Kerry in Saudi on Yemen peace push

Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) (AFP) - US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to push for peace in Yemen after UN-brokered talks collapsed despite global concern over mounting civilian casualties.

Kerry was to discuss a range of issues including Yemen Wednesday night with Saudi Arabia's powerful Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman, ahead of talks Thursday with King Salman.

Also Thursday, Kerry joins UN Yemen envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, Britain's Middle East minister Tobias Ellwood, and his counterparts from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to concentrate on Yemen.

Those talks will be a chance "to share ideas and initiatives for getting the political discussions back on track and trying to get a political solution" for Yemen, a senior State Department official said.

They also aim to put in place mechanisms for delivering desperately needed humanitarian aid, he said.

"It's not either-or. We want to get humanitarian access better ensured and at the same time we need a ceasefire in place. They go hand in hand but you need a reduction in violence," the official said.

Saudi Arabia leads an Arab coalition that began air raids in March last year and later sent in ground forces to support Yemen's internationally recognised government after Zaidi Shiite Huthi rebels and their allies overran much of the country.

As the civilian death toll continues to climb, the kingdom has faced rising criticism from human rights groups.

But there is little expectation of a breakthrough from Kerry's latest visit to the kingdom.

Peter Salisbury, associate fellow at London's Chatham House think tank, told AFP there is "mounting pressure" from certain groups within the US government to see the war ended as soon as possible.

"However, the Americans are limited in their ability to produce a meaningful political settlement."

Neither the rebels nor the government of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi was willing to make the necessary concessions for a peace deal, he added.

Seventeen months after the coalition intervened, anti-rebel forces have regained territory but the Huthis still control most of the interior highlands and Red Sea coast.

In the southwest, government forces are battling to break a rebel siege of Taez, Yemen's third city.

Riyadh says the Huthis are backed by its regional rival Iran.

Coalition-supported pro-government forces are also fighting Al-Qaeda jihadists who have exploited Yemen's power vacuum to expand their presence in the south and southeast.

- Civilians suffer -

For civilians in Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country even before the war escalated early last year, the humanitarian situation "continues to deteriorate", the UN says.

More than 6,600 people, roughly half of them civilians, have been killed, while millions lack food, clean water and adequate healthcare.

US officials have repeatedly urged their major Middle East ally to avoid harming non-combatants.

A diplomatic source in Riyadh said it is "becoming increasingly clear" that elements of the US administration are not happy with the civilian death toll.

Kerry would again raise such concerns and express "our strong desire to ensure that those sorts of casualties are avoided, and that the conduct of the air campaign is done with all proper and appropriate regard for being discriminate and precise," the State Department official said.

As well as providing precision-guided bombs, American forces have assisted the coalition with aerial refuelling and intelligence, although they have slashed the number of advisers directly supporting the alliance.

After making no headway, Ould Cheikh Ahmed on August 6 suspended the peace talks in Kuwait for one month, which triggered an escalation in fighting.

Negotiations ended after the Huthis and forces loyal to their ally, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, appointed a council to govern Yemen.

The move directly challenged Hadi's government, which works from Riyadh and Yemen's second city Aden.

Salisbury said the talks should be broadened beyond the rebels and government to include secessionists, and others in the multi-faceted conflict.

That, he said, "would send the message that peace in Yemen will be inclusive, not something agreed purely along the lines of elite interests."

Kerry arrived from Nigeria and Kenya on a trip focused on counterterrorism.

With Saudi officials he will also discuss the conflicts in Syria and Libya, the State Department official said.