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Saudis propose a cease-fire in Yemen

The Saudi cease-fire offer comes as Houthi forces press an offensive on the strategic town of Marib and after missile and drone attacks on Saudi territory.
Smoke billows from the site of Saudi-led air strikes in Sanaa, Yemen
Smoke billows from the site of Saudi-led airstrikes in Sanaa, Yemen, on March 7, 2021.Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

WASHINGTON — Saudi Arabia is offering Yemen's Houthi rebels a countrywide cease-fire and the reopening of the country’s main airport in a bid to bring an end to the war in Yemen, the kingdom's foreign minister said in a statement.

Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud outlined what he called an "initiative" for peace as Houthi forces press an offensive on the strategic town of Marib and after weeks of drone and missile attacks on Saudi territory by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

The Saudi proposal called for "a comprehensive ceasefire across the country under the supervision of the United Nations," according to the statement.

It also proposed the "reopening of Sanaa International Airport to a number of direct regional and international destinations."

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud speaks in Riyadh on March 22, 2021.Ahmed Yosri / Reuters

The initiative envisions "consultations between the Yemeni parties to reach a political resolution to the Yemeni crisis under the auspices of the United Nations," the statement said.

Saudi Arabia has faced international criticism and condemnation for bombing raids in Yemen that have killed and wounded thousands of civilians and for restricting access to Yemen’s ports, aggravating what the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

President Joe Biden’s administration has withdrawn U.S. assistance to the Saudi war effort, and urged Riyadh to pursue a peaceful settlement of the war.

The question now is whether the Houthis are prepared to lay down their arms and come to the negotiating table, said Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen.

“From their recent statements, the risk is that the Houthis believe that their recent attacks in Marib and across the border into Saudi Arabia are bringing them closer to a military victory,” he said.

“If that's the case, they may interpret the Saudi offer as evidence of weakness rather than a serious bid to end the conflict and reach a political accord.”

Saudi Arabia declared a unilateral cease-fire last year that quickly collapsed.

“We hope we will hear good news after announcing this initiative,” a senior Saudi official told reporters in a virtual briefing with reporters.

The Saudi initiative appears similar to a proposal supported by the U.N. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths and the U.S. Special Envoy Tim Lenderking. The American envoy recently returned from an extensive trip to the region and said that a "sound" proposal for a cease-fire had been presented to the Houthi forces, but that the rebels appeared more focused on pursuing a military offensive on Marib.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with his Saudi counterpart Monday, the State Department said.

"The secretary and the foreign minister discussed their close cooperation to support the efforts of UN Special Envoy Griffiths and U.S. Special Envoy Lenderking to end the conflict in Yemen, starting with the need for all parties to commit to a ceasefire and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid," the State Department said.

The Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have ramped up drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia over the past month, employing increasingly sophisticated drones and missiles to hit targets across the kingdom's territory, NBC News previously reported.

“We do believe the Houthis have misinterpreted the call from the United States to stop the war in Yemen,” said an official from the Saudi-led coalition at the same virtual briefing, referring to the recent drone and missile attacks on Saudi oil targets.

The Saudi-led military coalition said Sunday it carried out airstrikes on Houthi workshops for assembling ballistic missiles and drones in the capital Sanaa, Saudi state media reported.

Saudi Arabia led a coalition of Sunni Muslim states to intervene in Yemen’s civil war in 2015 in support of the country’s internationally recognized government, which had suffered battlefield defeats at the hands of Shiite Houthi rebels backed by Iran. The civil war has become a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pushed for the intervention in Yemen, but six years later, the Saudi-led campaign has turned into a quagmire for Riyadh. Aid officials say the country is on the brink of famine.

The Houthis previously have demanded the lifting of Saudi restrictions on commercial flights into Sanaa and on oil and food imports into the port of Hodeidah as a condition for agreeing to a cease-fire. The Saudis have defended the restrictions as an effort to prevent arms from being smuggled to their Houthi adversaries.

The Saudi plan appears to meet the Houthi demands part way, including by allowing commercial flights in and out of Sanaa airport.

The proposal would ensure taxes, customs and other fees from imported oil at the Hodeidah port would go to a joint account of Yemen’s Central Bank. Both the Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government would have access to the account.

The Houthis and the internationally recognized Yemeni government agreed to the idea in 2018, but Saudi Arabia had never declared its full support for it.