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UN Envoy to Yemen Says Deal Could End Crisis

FILE - Jamal Benomar, the U.N. special envoy to Yemen.

The United Nations envoy to Yemen says rival political parties, including the Shi'ite rebels that recently seized power in the majority Sunni country, are getting closer to reaching a deal that could prevent the country from sliding into civil war.

"We took a very important step this morning toward reaching a political deal to end the current crisis," said Jamal Benomar in a statement Friday posted to his Facebook page.

"Parties to the talks have agreed on an interim legislative body that guarantees the participation of all political elements not represented in the current lower house of parliament," he said. "According to the deal, the lower house will retain its current form, and a congress called the People’s Transitional Congress will be formed."

Mohammed Albasha, a spokesman for the Yemeni embassy in the United States, told VOA following the announcement that the agreement to replace the current upper house of lawmakers with the new transitional council is a move in the right direction.

"This is a welcoming step. It's a positive step after 20 plus days of talks that they were able to reach consensus, but there are still other major topics that have to be discussed," Albasha said.

U.N. envoy Benomar said issues that remain unresolved include the status of the presidency.

Yemen has been mired in political turmoil since Houthi rebels seized the capital, Sana'a, in September.

The United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution Sunday demanding the Houthis restore the Sana'a government and release U.S.-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, detained last month along with his ministers when rebels toppled the government.

The measure also calls on the Iran-backed rebels to engage in "good faith" in U.N.-brokered peace talks.

The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a bloc of energy-rich Gulf states, earlier urged the Security Council to adopt a resolution under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which permits such measures to be backed with economic sanctions. The GCC also threatened to take action on its own if the Hadi government is not restored.

Sunday's resolution stops short of either sanctions or direct intervention, and would require new Security Council action for any eventual penalties to be applied.

There was no immediate rebel response to the U.N. move. But Houthi leaders have said they will not cede power in what they describe as "the face of threats."

Since seizing power in January, rebels have dissolved parliament and set up their own ruling body. They say they are carrying out a "revolution" against corrupt officials and economic ruin.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of Yemenis protested against the country's takeover. In the central town of Ibb, Houthi gunmen fired on protesters, wounding at least four people.

Meanwhile, there are reports of heavy fighting in southern Yemen between rebel forces and Sunni tribesmen, many of whom are allied with local al-Qaida groups. Security sources say at least 26 people have been killed since Friday - 16 Houthis and 10 tribesmen.

The crisis has triggered a mass exodus of foreign diplomats, with The Netherlands, Spain and the United Arab Emirates the latest countries to shut down embassy operations. Saudi Arabia, Italy, Germany, the United States, France and Britain previously closed their embassies in Yemen.

Yemen shares a long border with Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter, and also has been fighting against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. The United States has supported the campaign against al-Qaida with drone strikes - missile attacks by unmanned aircraft targeting militants.