GENEVA: U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon Monday called for an immediate two-week humanitarian pause in Yemen to mark Ramadan as high stakes talks got underway in Geneva to try and end the bloody conflict.
International powers are keen for a speedy resolution, fearing the growing power of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemeni branch of the jihadi network which has taken advantage of the chaos to seize territory.
"We do not have a moment to lose," Ban said, adding that the fighting was "giving strength to some of the world's most ruthless terrorist groups."
"I hope this week starts the beginning of the end of the fighting," Ban said.
"Ramadan begins in two days," he said, stressing that the holy Muslim month should be a period for harmony, peace and reconciliation.
"I have emphasized the importance of another humanitarian pause for at least two weeks," Ban said, after meeting the government delegation.
Yemen has been wracked by conflict between Iran-backed Shiite rebels and exiled President Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi's internationally recognized government which has "claimed more than 2,600 lives, half of them civilians," Ban said.
"Today, Yemen's very existence hangs in the balance," Ban said. While parties bicker, Yemen burns."
He also called on the warring factions to "reach agreement on local cease-fires, with the withdrawal of armed groups from cities."
Ban dismissed fears that the talks would be torpedoed by the non-arrival of an Iran-backed rebel delegation in time for the talks. The team's plane was delayed in Djibouti, according to U.N. and diplomatic sources.
He said the delay was due to logistical reasons and added: "I am pleased to know that the other parties are on their way" and were expected to arrive later Monday.
Underscoring the need for immediate action in Yemen, Ban said: "The ticking clock is not a time piece, it is a time bomb."
The U.N.'s peace envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, said in a statement that Monday would see the start of "preliminary inclusive consultations" on the war.
Analysts however said a breakthrough was "very unlikely." The delegations will not even begin talks in the same room.
The rebels, supported by military units loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, have seized control of large parts of the country including the capital Sanaa, forcing Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia in February.
Yemen Foreign Minister Riad Yassin also echoed experts. "I'm not very optimistic," Yassin told AFP, adding that they "never respect any treaty."
Yassin also complained that the rebels had loaded their plane with far more representatives and advisors than had been agreed, adding: "They want to come here to make chaos."
Yassin also said the rebels were no different from ISIS or Nigeria's Boko Haram.
The government delegation led by the foreign minister reiterated its demands Sunday night, including that any cease-fire must see the militias withdraw from all territory they have conquered.
Fearing an Iran-friendly regime on its southern border, Riyadh has been leading a campaign of airstrikes against the rebels since March 26 but has so far failed to force them from territory they have seized.
The U.N. has described the country's humanitarian crisis as "catastrophic", with 80 percent of the population - 20 million civilians - in need of aid.
Any chance of success at the first talks between the warring factions since Hadi fled Sanaa was "very unlikely," Yemen expert Laurent Bonnefoy said, adding: "Indeed, each side appears to be inflexible, disinclined toward compromise."
Nevertheless, the talks could offer breathing space, allowing Saudi Arabia to announce a truce that would launch more serious discussions as well as "save face by stopping an offensive they are clearly unable to win on the field," said the analyst from the International Research Centre at Sciences Po in Paris.
Saudi-led coalition warplanes pounded rebel positions across Yemen overnight, witnesses said.
There were pre-dawn strikes on rebel-held missile depots on the Fajj Attan hill overlooking Sanaa, they said. Other strikes targeted rebels in Amran province farther north as well as Hajja near the Saudi border and nearby Houthi rebel stronghold Saada.
Representatives of Hadi's government had arrived on Saturday for the talks, which had been due to start Sunday but were delayed after the rebels refused to board a U.N. plane that had been scheduled for a stopover in Saudi Arabia.