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Saudi-offered, rebel-rejected cease-fire starts in Yemen war

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – The coalition battling rebels who hold Yemen’s capital began a unilateral cease-fire yesterday in the yearslong war, even as the insurgents said they rejected the proposal.

The pause in fighting began at 6am ahead of the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadhan.

Several similar efforts have failed, and there was no immediate independent confirmation on whether hostilities paused between coalition forces and Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

The cease-fire announcement late on Tuesday had raised immediate doubts because the Iran-backed rebels are skipping an ongoing summit over the war in Saudi Arabia, called by the Saudi-based Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Within hours, Houthi official Mohammed al-Bukaiti rejected the offer over the continuing closure of Sanaa’s airport and restrictions on the country’s ports by the coalition.

A burning oil depot lights the sky over Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. PHOTO: AP

“If the blockade is not lifted, the declaration of the coalition of aggression to stop its military operations will be meaningless because the suffering of Yemenis as a result of the blockade is more severe than the war itself,” he wrote on Twitter early yesterday.

The United Nations (UN) and others had been pushing the warring sides to reach a truce for Ramadhan, as has tenuously occurred in the past. Ramadhan is likely to start this weekend, depending on the sighting of the new crescent moon.

The GCC, whose members are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, began the talks on Tuesday in Riyadh. Yesterday, Saudi state television aired an open portion of the discussions live.

GCC Secretary-General Nayef al-Hajraf welcomed the Yemeni delegations to Riyadh, hailing the talks in his speech as a “breakthrough to move Sanaa from war to peace”.

“The path to security and peace in Yemen is not impossible, even if the challenges are great,” al-Hajraf told the vast hall of officials and diplomats. “The success of the Yemeni consultations is not an option, but a duty.”

The UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, called the coalition’s cease-fire offer “a step in the right direction” and wished the delegates success in their talks. The summit is expected to continue through April 7.

Yemen’s war began in September 2014, when the Houthis swept into the capital, Sanaa, from their northwestern stronghold in the Arab world’s poorest country.

The Houthis then pushed into exile the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, elected in 2012 as the sole candidate after the long rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The coalition entered the war in March 2015 to try and restore Hadi’s government to power.

But the war stretched into long bloody years, pushing Yemen to the brink of famine.

More than 150,000 people have been killed in the warfare, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project. Those include both fighters and civilians; the most recent figure for the civilian death toll in Yemen’s conflict stands at 14,500.