Apr 25, 3:04 PM EDT

UN chief appoints new Yemen special envoy



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UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- The U.N. chief appointed a new special envoy to Yemen as pressure grows to return to peace talks while fighting continues in the Arab world's poorest country.

A statement Saturday says Ban Ki-moon has appointed Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed of Mauritania, who until now has led the U.N.'s Ebola mission.

More than a thousand people have been killed in recent weeks after Iran-backed Shiite rebels swept through the country and a Saudi-led Sunni coalition began airstrikes to drive them back. The Western-backed president fled the country as the Houthi rebels closed in, and warnings have since grown of a humanitarian crisis as food and fuel supplies run short.

Ahmed replaces Jamal Benomar, who had said he was stepping down. Benomar had faced sharp criticism from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries as his recent efforts to broker peace showed little success, though for a time Yemen had been held up as a model country for its post-Arab Spring political transition.

Benomar's four years of efforts fell apart amid the Houthi rebel uprising and the airstrike response, which has led to fears of a kind of proxy war between Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies and Iran, a Shiite power that has supported the Houthis.

Yemen's U.N. ambassador, Khaled Alyemany, told the AP earlier this month that Benomar had not paid enough attention to the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Yemen's internationally recognized leader, and "had started to promote the Houthis, and we cannot accept that." At the time, Benomar did not comment.

Alyemany called Amhed "a very good U.N. diplomat and expert."

Ahmed was appointed by Ban in December as head of the U.N. Mission for Ebola Emergency Response, based in Ghana. His approach in responding to the crisis was "hands-on," said Tolbert Nyenswah, head of the Ebola response in Liberia, the country that has seen more deaths than any other during the outbreak.

Nyenswah recalled a visit to Liberia's western Grand Cape Mount County, which borders Sierra Leone and continued to record Ebola cases well after the epidemic slowed in Monrovia.

There, Ahmed used "plain and simple English" to explain to residents the need to avoid handling the dead bodies of Ebola victims s to mitigate the risk of infection, Nyenswah said.

Ahmed won't be new to Yemen, where he previously served as a U.N. humanitarian coordinator.

Another concern in Yemen is the growing presence of the Islamic State group. Analysts fear the group is taking advantage of Yemen's chaos to expand there.

The head of U.N. operations in Yemen said in an interview with The Associated Press this week that a renewal of peace talks is "inevitable," and behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts could bring results in the coming weeks.

The U.N. Security Council recently imposed an arms embargo on Houthi leaders and again demanded that they withdraw and stop the violence. The council also imposed an arms embargo on former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had stepped down in early 2012 as part of the U.N.-guided transition and now has aligned himself with the Houthis.

The Gulf Cooperation Council - which includes Yemen's neighbors Saudi Arabia and Oman as well as Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates - put together the plan for a political transition in Yemen that was only partially carried out.

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AP writers Jonathan Paye-Layleh in Monrovia, Liberia, and Robbie Corey-Boulet in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, contributed to this report.

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