The Iranian-backed Houthi movement has formed a new government in the capital of Yemen, in a surprise move that is expected to hinder efforts to end a 20-month-old civil war in the impoverished country.
The minority Shia group has been in control of Sanaa over the past two years, after driving out the internationally-recognized government and forcing its president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, to flee to neighboring Saudi Arabia.
The so-called National Salvation Government, formed on Monday, will be headed by Abdul Aziz Habtoor, a politician who had defected from Hadi’s government and joined the Houthi coalition last year, according to the movement’s news agency Saba.
Houthi spokesperson Mohammed al Bukhaiti said that the new government, formed with a number of allied groups, “was meant to strengthen the partnership in the country.”
“It includes parties from all the political spectrum,” he told CNN over the phone from Sanaa, while adding that it excluded politicians supportive of Hadi’s exiled government.
The move comes at a time when the United Nations is scrambling to negotiate a peace deal between the waring parties and set the groundwork for an inclusive unity government.
Al Bukhaiti told CNN the newly-declared government was “not an alternative to a future unity government that would include members of those who are pro-aggression”.
His reference was a swipe at the Saudi-led military coalition that has been backing Hadi and bombarding Houthi positions in Yemen since March 2015.
Following the declaration of the government, Rajeh Badi, a spokesman for the Hadi government, was quoted by Reuters as saying that the move showed “a disregard not just for the Yemeni people but also for the international community.”
The UN envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, has yet to comment on the development. He met with a number of officials in Yemen’s neighboring countries over the weekend to “prepare for a new round” of talks, he said in a statement on Sunday.
The conflict in Yemen has killed an estimated 10,000 people and left millions in need of aid, according to the UN.
The World Food Programme warned last month of the devastating toll that hunger could have on the war-torn country, adding that “an entire generation could be crippled by hunger”.
Since peace talks in Kuwait failed in August, the coalition has intensified air raids, despite vocal criticism from rights groups that the bombardments have been indiscriminate and could constitute war crimes.
The attacks have often hit civilian targets with devastating results.
In October, the Saudi-led coalition admitted that it was responsible for an airstrike that killed at least 155 people at a wake in Yemen that month.
The US has come under increasing pressure to stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia. The US Senate last month rejected a bipartisan proposal to block a pending $1.15 billion arms sale to Riyadh.