Saudi Arabia on Thursday said it was hosting a delegation of Yemen's Iran-backed Huthi rebels for talks on ending the impoverished country's brutal war.
Senior Huthi figures took off from Yemen's capital Sanaa, multiple sources said, for their first public visit to oil-rich Saudi since Riyadh began spearheading a military intervention in the neighbouring country in 2015.
Yemen was plunged into conflict when the Huthis overran the capital Sanaa in September 2014, prompting the Saudi-led coalition to launch their offensive the following March.
The ensuing fighting has left hundreds of thousands dead and forced millions from their homes, causing one of the world's worst humanitarian crises in a country already pummelled by decades of conflict and upheaval.
Saudi state TV Al Ekhbariya said the talks, which come after a Saudi team visited Sanaa in April, were aimed at "finding a comprehensive political solution in Yemen".
"The kingdom is hosting a negotiating delegation representing the Yemeni Huthi component, intending to continue the discussions aimed at finding a political solution, a comprehensive ceasefire, and moving from the stage of conflicts to stability," it said.
The official Saudi Press Agency said Riyadh "invited a delegation from Sanaa to visit the kingdom" to complete talks held in the Yemeni capital earlier this year.
A UN-brokered, six-month ceasefire that expired last October is still largely holding but moves towards peace have been slow since the Saudi delegation left Sanaa without an agreement five months ago.
"The delegation will head to Riyadh to continue consultations with the Saudi side," the Huthis' political chief, Mahdi al-Mashat, said via the rebels' Saba news agency.
"Peace was and still is our first option and everyone must work to achieve it."
- 'Back rooms to the living room' -
The Huthis headed for Riyadh on an Omani plane, days after Saudi de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met Oman's sultan on his way back from the G20 summit in India. Oman has played a role as mediators in the conflict.
"Optimism exists regarding the mediation and the Omani efforts to achieve peace in Yemen," Ali al-Qhoom, a member of the Huthis' political council, posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.
The head of the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies think tank, Majed al-Madhaji, told AFP that the Huthi visit "is like moving the relationship between the Huthis and Saudi Arabia from the back rooms to the living room".
By organising talks in Riyadh, both sides are "legitimising this relationship and giving it an additional impetus".
"On the political level, it is an advanced step to end Saudi Arabia's direct role in Yemen and for the Huthis to acknowledge its role as a mediator," in addition to being one of the parties to the conflict, he added.
Moves towards peace in Yemen were boosted when heavyweight rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran announced a surprise rapprochement in March, seven years after they broke off ties.
The Huthi demands include payment of their civil servants' salaries by the displaced Yemeni government, and the launch of new destinations from Sanaa airport, which was closed until last year when commercial flights resumed to Jordan and Egypt.
Underlining Yemen's problems, UN agencies and 91 international and Yemeni non-governmental organisations said on Thursday that 21.6 million people -- 75 percent of the population -- needed humanitarian assistance, calling for more funding.