ADEN (Reuters) – A nationwide ceasefire in response to the global coronavirus outbreak went into effect in Yemen on Thursday, stirring hope for an end to the five-year-old war that has pushed millions to the brink of famine.
A Saudi-led coalition fighting against Yemen’s Houthi movement announced overnight it would halt military operations from 0900 GMT for two weeks in support of United Nations efforts to end the conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people.
The Houthi leadership has yet to announce whether the Iran-aligned movement, which controls the capital Sanaa and most major urban centres in Yemen, would follow suit in what would be the first major breakthrough in peace efforts since late 2018.
The coalition said its move aims to facilitate talks sponsored by U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths for a permanent truce, motivated in part to avoid a potential outbreak of the new coronavirus, though no cases have been reported so far in Yemen.
“We are tired of the war… We want it to stop for good,” said 49-year-old Abd al-Basset Muhammad, who owns a juice shop in the southern port of Aden, interim headquarters of the Saudi-backed government.
“If the war hasn’t already killed you, you are dying of hunger or disease,” he told Reuters.
The conflict, widely seen in the region as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has been in military stalemate for years. Riyadh last year took over most of the costly and unpopular military campaign after key coalition partner the United Arab Emirates significantly scaled down its presence.
A Houthi official said on Wednesday that the group had sent the United Nations a proposal calling for an end to the war and what it describes as a coalition blockade. The coalition, which patrols the coast, denies imposing a blockade and says it aims to halt import of weapons.
University student Amal Abd al-Rahman, 24, said Yemenis had suffered enough. “We want to live to learn. If coronavirus appears, Yemen will be facing an unprecedented catastrophe”.
The United Nations and Western allies have pointed to the threat of the coronavirus to push the combatants to restart talks to end the war, which has shattered Yemen’s health system.
The warring parties last held political negotiations at U.N.-sponsored talks in Sweden in 2018. They agreed a peace deal for the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, but this has yet to be fully implemented due to deep mistrust among all sides.
“We cannot control a global pandemic amongst bombs and airstrikes,” said Tamuna Sabedze, International Rescue Committee’s Yemen country director, calling for a permanent ceasefire.
“Two weeks is not enough time to prepare this country for the devastating impacts COVID-19 will have on the country, nor to reach those in need and alleviate their suffering,” Sabedze said, referring to 24 million Yemenis reliant on aid.
Yemen had witnessed a lull in hostilities after Saudi Arabia and the Houthis began back-channel talks late last year. But there has been a recent spike in attacks, including Houthi missile launches at Saudi cities and retaliatory coalition air strikes.
UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said in a Twitter post on Thursday that he hoped the Houthis would “rise to the occasion”.
Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, has been mired in violence since the Houthis ousted the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi from power in Sanaa in late 2014, prompting the coalition to intervene in March 2015 to restore him. The Houthis say they are fighting a corrupt system.
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