CAIRO — A cease-fire proposed by the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen went into effect Thursday, potentially paving the way for an end to the more than 5-year-old conflict.
There was no official word on the cease-fire from the Houthis, raising concerns whether the initiative could translate into concrete changes on the ground. In initial comments, one senior Houthi member said the cease-fire was a ploy by the kingdom to boost its international standing while a rebel spokesman accused the coalition of several attacks on Thursday.
Saudi officials said late Wednesday the cease-fire would last for two weeks and that it's in response to U.N. calls to halt hostilities amid the new coronavirus pandemic. But the initiative could also be an attempt by the monarchy to pull out of a war that has proved financially and politically costly.
Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman tweeted Thursday that it “will hopefully create a more effective climate to deescalate tensions” and enable the sides to work toward a political settlement.
He also tweeted that Saudi Arabia would contribute $500 million to U.N. relief efforts in Yemen this year, and an additional $25 million to combat the pandemic. “It is up to Houthis to put the health and safety of the Yemeni people above all else,” the prince wrote.
The Saudi-led coalition has been fighting the Houthis since 2015 on behalf of the U.N.-backed government of Yemeni President Abed Rabo Mansour Hadi. 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.
Shortly after the Saudi announcement, residents in the contested Yemeni province of 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.
Meanwhile, Yemen's official SABA news agency reported Thursday that Hadi's vice president, Lt. Gen Ali Mohsen Saleh, told U.N. chief Antonio Guterres in a virtual meeting that Hadi's government had agreed to the cease-fire.
In 2014, Houthi rebels had overran most of the country's north including the capital, Sanaa, forcing Hadi's government to flee to the country's south and later on to the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
Saudi military spokesman Col. Turki al-Malki said the truce could be extended to allow warring parties to discuss “a comprehensive political solution in Yemen.”
Senior Houthi politician Muhammad al-Bukhaiti slammed the Saudi proposal in comments to The Associated Press.
“This announcement does not express a genuine intention to achieve peace,” al-Bukhaiti said. “The Saudis are still employing their air, land and naval forces to tighten the siege on Yemen ... this is an announcement only to restore (their positions), to close ranks.”
Houthi military spokesman Yehia Sarea tweeted that the Saudi forces carried out a series of incursions on Houthi-controlled territory near the border Thursday — an escalation that's “bound to failure and defeat.”
The kingdom's cease-fire declaration comes after previous attempts at peace talks and cease-fires failed to hold. This time, however, the kingdom faces new realities.
With oil prices hovering just above $30 a barrel, the kingdom has said it will cut government spending as it draws from its hefty foreign reserves to prop up the economy amid a shutdown of businesses across the country due to the pandemic.
Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s top spenders on arms and there’s no indication that the government’s spending cuts will immediately impact its defense budget, but the cost of war in Yemen weighs heavily as government revenues plummet due to low oil prices. The Wilson Center estimates that the price tag to sustain air, ground and sea operations in the Yemen war can reach up to $200 million a day, though it’s unclear how much of that Saudi Arabia has paid.
The Saudi-led coalition was also dealt a blow last summer after the United Arab Emirates undertook “a strategic redeployment” of its troops in Yemen following heightened tensions with Iran in the Persian Gulf, leaving the coalition with a weakened ground presence and fewer tactical options.
So far, Yemen has not recorded any cases of the new coronavirus, or the disease it causes, COVID-19. However, humanitarian groups have warned of a severe death toll if the pandemic hits the Arab world’s poorest country because of its war-weakened health care infrastructure.
An International Rescue Committee representative in Yemen said Thursday that more than half of Yemen’s medical facilities are not functioning and that millions of Yemenis have no access to proper hygiene, water or sanitation.
“This (cease-fire) promises to be a much needed respite for the 24 million Yemenis in desperate need of humanitarian aid,” said Tamuna Sabedze, IRC's Yemen country director. She urged the warring parties to eventually agree on a permanent truce.
“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,” said Sabedze.
She pointed out that an isolation facility outside of the port city of Hodeidah was hit by an airstrike earlier this week.
“We cannot control a global pandemic amongst bombs and airstrikes,” Sabedze said.
The U.S. State Department welcomed the Saudi proposal Thursday, stressing that “an enduring solution will require compromise from all sides.”
Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.