CAIRO — The Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen announced Wednesday that its forces would begin a cease-fire starting Thursday, a step that could pave the way for the first direct peace talks between the two sides that have been at war for more than five years.
In a statement carried by Saudi Arabia's official state news agency, a Saudi military spokesman, Col. Turki al-Malki, said that the ceasefire would last two weeks and that it comes in response to U.N. calls to halt hostilities amid the coronavirus pandemic.
He said the ceasefire could be extended to pave the way for all the parties “to discuss proposals, steps, and mechanisms for sustainable ceasefire in Yemen ... for a comprehensive political solution in Yemen.”
There was no immediate reaction from Houthi leaders or Yemen's internationally recognized government to the coalition's statement.
Within hours of the announcement, residents in the contested Yemeni province Marib said a suspected Houthi missile struck a security building in the city center. There was no immediate claim of responsibility or reports of casualties. A Yemeni presidential adviser, Abdel-Malek al-Mekhlafi, blamed the Houthis, saying on Twitter that the attack shows the rebels "are fueling war not peace.”
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who called for a cease-fire in all global conflicts on March 23 to tackle the virus and specifically called two days later for a cessation in Yemen, welcomed the announcement, saying: “This can help to advance efforts towards peace as well as the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
He urged Yemen’s government, which is backed by the Saudi-led coalition, and the Houthis “to follow through on their commitment to immediately cease hostilities” and to engage with each other without preconditions in negotiations facilitated by the U.N.
Heavy fighting in Yemen between coalition-backed government forces and the Houthis killed more than 270 people the past 10 days, government officials and tribal leaders said Wednesday. The flare-up in fighting came at a time Saudi Arabia intercepted a missile targeted at their capital, Riyadh, late last month. The Houthis frequently launch missiles across Yemen’s border into Saudi Arabia, but it's rare that they reach the capital.
The war has proved costly for Saudi Arabia and has damaged its image abroad. International rights groups criticized Saudi Arabia over the conflict and the humanitarian toll. The calls for peace come amid a trying time. The country is engaged in an international price war over the cost of oil and is also battling the coronavirus outbreak itself, with 2,932 confirmed cases and 41 deaths.
Iran, which backs the Houthis, is also facing challenges at home. As the worst-hit country in the Middle East, it has 67,286 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 3,993 deaths.
Al-Malki, the coalition spokesman, said the ceasefire was aimed at “building confidence” between the two warring parties.
Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest nation, has been convulsed by civil war since 2014. That is when the Iranian-backed Houthis took control of the country’s north, including the capital of Sanaa. The Saudi-led military coalition intervened against the Houthis the following year, conducting relentless airstrikes and a blockade of Yemen.
Past attempts at ending the conflict have stalled. A 2018 peace agreement, brokered by the U.N. in Sweden, led to a rough road map to end fighting in the key port city of Hodeida but brought little actual progress. The talks proposed by Al-Malki would be the first face-to-face peace negotiations among the Saudis, Houthis and government since the war started.
The conflict has killed over 100,000 people and created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, leaving millions suffering from food and medical care shortages and pushing the country to the brink of famine.
Authorities in Yemen have yet to announce a confirmed case of the coronavirus, but experts fear the virus could eventually prove deadly there after the years of devastation by the war.