Yemen ceasefire raises hopes for talks

A UN-brokered ceasefire took hold in Yemen on Monday despite sporadic clashes, raising hopes that peace talks due next week may finally resolve the conflict.

Forces loyal to the Yemeni president stand guard in Aden on April 11, 2016.  A UN-brokered ceasefire was taking hold in Yemen despite sporadic clashes. AFP / SALEH AL-OBEIDI
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Marib, Yemen // A UN-brokered ceasefire took hold in Yemen on Monday despite sporadic clashes, raising hopes that peace talks due next week may finally resolve the conflict.

Forces loyal to President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who drove his government out of the capital, and the Saudi-led Arab coalition that intervened in Yemen last year all pledged to honour the truce that took effect at midnight on Sunday.

The UN special envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, called the ceasefire “a first step in Yemen’s return to peace”.

“This is critical, urgent and much needed. Yemen cannot afford the loss of more lives,” he said

General Mohamed Ali Al Makdashi, the chief of staff for Mr Hadi’s forces, said early on Monday the ceasefire was largely holding despite some violations by rebels.

“The truce has not collapsed and we hope the rebels end their attacks and respect the ceasefire,” he said, alleging breaches in several areas including the cities of Taez in the south-west and Marib east of Sanaa.

Loyalists accused Houthis of 25 violations around Taez, where one civilian was killed in rebel bombing.

The rebels, meanwhile, said in a statement there was at least one coalition air strike in Taez province, and accused loyalists of being behind 33 truce violations north and east of Sanaa, as well as in the south.

Five soldiers were killed in clashes with rebels in Marib province and Taez, military sources said.

A committee of representatives from both sides will try to ensure the ceasefire is respected.

Coalition spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed Assiri earlier described the violations as “minor”.

“It is the first day and we should be patient,” the top Saudi officer said. “Day by day, it will be better.”

In Sanaa, the capital seized by the rebels in 2014, witnesses said there had not been air strikes by coalition warplanes since Sunday.

Prime Minister Ahmed bin Dagher also played down violations, saying that the truce “seems good”, adding after meeting the UN envoy in Riyadh that “we want a durable peace”.

“Now is the time to step back from the brink,” the UN’s Cheikh Ahmed said.

“The progress made represents a real opportunity to rebuild a country that has suffered far too much violence for far too long.”

The Houthis, allied with troops loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, also committed to the ceasefire in a letter sent to the United Nations, according to a statement carried by the rebel-run Saba news agency.

Previous efforts to stop the fighting in Yemen — which has killed thousands and forced more than two million people from their homes — collapsed in January.

Militants including from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have exploited the conflict to seize territory and gain influence.

But pressure had been building for the ceasefire and there are hopes it can be the cornerstone of a long-lasting peace deal that can be hammered out at talks taking place next week in Kuwait.

The Houthis, a northern minority that has long complained of marginalisation, descended on the capital Sanaa from their mountainous region in September 2014, seizing the city with little resistance.

As they advanced into other areas, Mr Hadi and other officials fled first to Aden and eventually to Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia and a coalition including the UAE launched air strikes in March last year against the Huthis and later sent ground troops to support pro-government forces.

The loyalists have since managed to reclaim large parts of the south, establishing a temporary capital in Aden, but have failed to dislodge the Houthis from Sanaa and other key areas.

The coalition has come under fire from rights groups, which allege its air war has caused heavy civilian casualties.

The United Nations says more than 6,300 people have been killed in Yemen since March last year, around half of them civilians.

*Agence France-Presse