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Yemen PM: UN talks aim at ‘restoring power’ to government

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SANAA, Yemen — Yemen's internationally recognized prime minister said Monday that upcoming United Nations-sponsored peace talks in Geneva are aimed at "restoring power" to his government and pressuring Shiite rebels to withdraw from the capital and other cities.

Speaking to reporters from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, Khaled Bahah said he hopes the June 14 meeting will lead to more intensive negotiations on a road map for Yemen's future, including an eventual referendum on a draft constitution and fresh elections.

His comments were quickly dismissed by the Iran-supported rebels, known as Houthis, who seized the capital Sanaa last year and still control much of northern Yemen despite more than two months of Saudi-led airstrikes.

Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdel-Salam said in a statement that Bahah's government is illegitimate and can't impose any preconditions. He called President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi a "tool of Riyadh."

He said the Bahah government "can't talk the language of logic, instead they can talk the language of aggression." He accused it of not wanting the Geneva talks to take place, and said the government would be unable to control its own fractious forces even if it wanted peace.

Bahah's government, which initially threatened to boycott the talks, said its representatives would only discuss the implementation of a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for the withdrawal of rebel forces from occupied cities, paving the way for Hadi's return to power.

"Going to Geneva is meant to consult on the mechanism of ... the return of the state," Bahah said. "There will be no negotiations."

Bahah vowed to unify and restructure the armed forces, which have split over the conflict, with units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh siding with the Houthis. But Bahah said rather than purge veteran officers, the government would broaden the military to include troops from different regions, sects and tribes.

"I assure the current army, you are going to be part of the new army so as not to repeat the story of Iraq," he said, referring to the fateful U.S. decision to dissolve Iraq's army after the 2003 invasion.

Forces loyal to the exiled government have made little progress in rolling back the rebels, who have imposed a siege on the southern city of Aden, cutting off its food and fuel supplies, according to residents.

Houthi representatives meanwhile traveled to Moscow, where they met with Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and other diplomats. The delegation was led by senior rebel leader Saleh al-Sammad, who heads the group's political council.

"They expressed readiness to seek a path for overcoming the armed conflict that is continuing in the country through inclusive dialogue which would allow Yemenis themselves to determine their future," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Russia has been pushing for expedited talks in Geneva to end the fighting.

The Saudi-led coalition said Monday that two Saudi soldiers were killed in cross-border attacks from Yemen in kingdom's southwestern Asir region. The statement did not say how the soldiers were killed or whether the attack was carried out by the Houthis.

Four Saudi soldiers were killed Friday in the southern border regions of Jizan and Najran during fighting with Saleh loyalists and Houthis.