Scheduled peace talks in Geneva between Yemen's government and Huthi rebels hung in the balance Thursday as both sides traded ultimatums and a UN envoy scrambled to mediate.
The rebel delegation, still in Sanaa, insisted the UN must meet a list of conditions before it will travel to Switzerland, prompting government representatives already in Geneva to give the Huthis a 24-hour deadline or it "will leave".
UN envoy Martin Griffiths, who said the planned meeting offered a "flickering signal of hope" for an end to the years-long conflict, had to postpone the start of the talks.
"He continues to make efforts to overcome obstacles to allow the consultations to go forward," his office said in a statement Thursday, adding that Griffiths remained "hopeful" the rebels would come.
The Geneva talks are meant to be the first since 2016, when 108 days of negotiations between the government of Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi and rebels failed to yield a deal.
The Huthis control the capital Sanaa and much of northern Yemen, while a Saudi-led coalition which backs Hadi's government controls the country's airspace.
Led by Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani, a Yemen government delegation arrived in Switzerland on Wednesday.
But on what was meant to be the first day of talks, the rebels issued an ultimatum from Sanaa Thursday, saying they would not join the talks until the UN meets conditions that include transporting their wounded to Oman for treatment and a guarantee they will be allowed to return home after the talks.
The rebels accused the UN of failing to keep promises in this regard.
According to the Huthis' Al-Masirah TV, the UN had been unable to "secure authorisation" from the Saudi-led coalition for a plane to transport the rebel delegation, along with wounded insurgents, out of Yemen.
Asked about the Huthi claims, Griffiths said Wednesday: "We are working on that."
The government delegation said it would wait only another 24 hours, until midday (1000 GMT) Friday.
"We have this scheduled meeting since two months ago ... Today we are alone," delegation member Hamza Alkamali told journalists, and claimed the rebels were making it clear "they don't want peace".
"We want them to come, and we are pushing them to come," said Alkamali. However, "we will leave, if they don’t come... in the next 24 hours."
On Thursday, an AFP journalist saw the envoy entering the Geneva hotel hosting the Yemen government delegation.
Griffiths had told journalists he would begin informal consultations" with the government team while the rebels make their way to Switzerland.
When the two parties eventually meet, he said on Wednesday, there would be no "formal negotiations", merely exploratory talks on how to get the parties around a negotiating table.
The UN Security Council on Wednesday urged both sides to "take a first step towards ending a conflict that has brought severe pain and humanitarian suffering to the Yemeni people".
- 'Collateral damage' -
All previous attempts to resolve the Yemen war have failed.
Griffiths is the UN's third Yemen envoy since 2014, when Huthis overran the capital and drove Hadi's government into exile.
The following year, Saudi Arabia and its allies formed a powerful regional military coalition to back Hadi's government.
The conflict has left nearly 10,000 people dead and pushed the Arab world's most impoverished country to the brink of famine.
On Thursday, the Saudi-led coalition acknowledged there may have been "collateral damage" from August 23 strikes the UN said killed 26 children south of the port of Hodeida.
A day earlier, Saudi Arabia shot down a ballistic missile fired by Huthi rebels, with shrapnel wounding 26 people including two children, the coalition said.