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‘Coronavirus ceasefire’ in Yemen’s long conflict begins

The Saudi-led coalition began a unilateral ceasefire in Yemen’s long war Thursday, saying it hoped the initiative to prevent coronavirus in the impoverished country would lead to a wider political solution.

The Iran-backed Huthi rebels have not formally responded to the the coalition’s declaration of a two-week pause in the five-year conflict that took effect from 0900 GMT.

However Yasser Al-Houri, secretary of the Huthis’ political council, poured cold water on the idea, saying that the Saudis “are dishonest and violate every truce they announce”.

“The announcement of this truce is to evade the true national vision that offers real solutions,” he said, referring to a roadmap for peace that the rebels unveiled on Wednesday shortly before the Saudi offer.

If the ceasefire does hold, it would be the first breakthrough since the warring parties agreed to a UN-brokered truce in the port city of Hodeida during talks in Sweden in late 2018.

The United Arab Emirates, a key ally in the coalition which drew down its troops last year as the conflict became increasingly intractable, applauded the Saudi move as “wise and responsible”.

“Hope the Huthis rise to the occasion. The COVID-19 crisis eclipses everything — the international community must step up efforts & work together to protect the Yemeni people,” UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted.

“It is an important decision that must be built on, on both humanitarian and political levels,” he added.

The conciliatory gesture follows an escalation in fighting between the warring parties despite a call by the United Nations for an immediate cessation to protect civilians in the Arab world’s poorest nation from the pandemic.

Saudi Arabia, which launched its military intervention to support Yemen’s internationally recognised government in March 2015, said Wednesday that the truce, which could be extended, could pave the way for a wider political solution.

Officials indicated they are keen for a UN-sponsored face-to-face meeting with the rebels to achieve a permanent ceasefire.

But hours before the announcement, the Huthis released a comprehensive document that called for a withdrawal of foreign troops and the end of the coalition’s blockade on Yemen’s land, sea and air ports.

They also demanded that the coalition pay government salaries for the next decade, and hand over compensation for the rebuilding of the country including homes destroyed in airstrikes.

– ‘Utmost urgency’ –

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who has called for an “immediate global ceasefire” to help avert disaster for vulnerable people in conflict zones, welcomed the truce offer and urged the government and Huthis to enter negotiations.

“Only through dialogue will the parties be able to agree on a mechanism for sustaining a nationwide ceasefire, humanitarian and economic confidence-building measures to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people, and the resumption of the political process to reach a comprehensive settlement to end the conflict,” he said.

The ceasefire comes as Saudi Arabia, reeling from plunging oil prices, seeks to extricate itself from the costly conflict that has killed tens of thousands of Yemeni people and triggered what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Yemen’s broken healthcare system has so far recorded no cases of the COVID-19 illness, but aid groups have warned that when it does hit, the impact will be catastrophic.

Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit also hailed the ceasefire offer as a “rare opportunity to stop the bloodshed in Yemen.”

Fatima Abo Alasrar, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, said observers will focus on whether the Huthis now stop their military operations.

“That will be the real litmus test of a successful ceasefire as the Huthis have currently opened multiple battlefronts they cannot afford to close.”

Fighting recently escalated again between the Huthis and Riyadh-backed Yemen government troops around the strategic northern provinces of Al-Jouf and Marib, ending a months-long lull.

And Saudi air defences intercepted Yemeni rebel missiles over Riyadh and the border city of Jizan late last month, leaving two civilians wounded in the curfew-locked capital, state media reported.

It was the first major assault on Saudi Arabia since the Huthi rebels offered last September to halt attacks on the kingdom after devastating missile and drone strikes on Saudi oil installations.

Last week, the coalition carried out multiple air strikes on Yemen’s rebel-held capital Sanaa in retaliation for the missile strikes.