SANA'A // The Yemeni government announced yesterday that it will halt its military offensive against al Houthi rebels in order to allow the delivery of food and medical supplies to the northern province of Sa'ada, which has endured the brunt of the fighting. "Based on directives of the political leadership of the country ... on the occasion of the Eid al Fitr holiday and in response to appeals of Sa'ada citizens and international relief organisations, particularly an appeal from the UN secretary general, to [allow] access to displaced people and the war-ridden areas," the government said in a statement.
The announcement early yesterday stated that the ceasefire would take effect at midday, just a day before the Eid holiday marking the end of Ramadan. The government's conditions for a lasting ceasefire include rebel withdrawal from all districts and the removal of rebel checkpoints. The government peace plan also requires the al Houthis, who have been fighting an intermittent war against the state for more than five years, to return captured military and civilian equipment, refrain from intervening in the state's local affairs and abide by the constitution and law.
These conditions are the same as those offered last month and earlier this month, except for one item that is not mentioned this time - the disclosure of the fate of the kidnapped foreigners, which the government blamed on the rebels. Nine foreigners were kidnapped in Sa'ada in June. The bodies of three were found three days later, while the rest are still missing. A few hours after this new truce offer both the government and the al Houthis exchanged accusations of breaching the decision. The army accused the rebels of continuing its attacks against soldiers in Harf Sufyan in neighbouring Amran province, al Malaheedh district and Baqim region in Sa'ada.
The army statement said the coming hours will reveal the credibility of the rebels and their seriousness about peace. Abdulmalik al Houthi, the rebel leader, said in a statement distributed via e-mail to local journalists that the government troops continued attacks yesterday in Harf Sufyan and that the army pounded al Minzalah, Malaheedh and other areas with artillery. "Although the situation on the ground is still in a state of war, we repeat our call to the authorities to maintain the [ceasefire] decision on the ground," Mr al Houthi's statement said. "We are ready to offer initiatives that prove our adherence to peace to prevent bloodshed, keeping of peace and stability."
The government move comes after international calls to implement a ceasefire to allow medical and food supplies to reach the civilians caught up in the fighting, particularly after the military air strike that killed more than 80 civilians on Wednesday in Harf Sufyan. Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, called on the Yemeni government and al Houthi fighters on Friday to allow humanitarian aid to reach affected northern regions.
Mr Ban also expressed concern over reports that the air strike that killed the civilians was on a refugee camp. He urged both the government and rebels to "immediately cease all fighting and to urgently allow humanitarian access". Yemen welcomed the UN call and said yesterday the government had given top priority to the issue of displaced people, according to the state-run Saba news agency. The UN estimates that intensified combat, which began around Sa'ada city in July, has forced 55,000 highland villagers from their homes, adding to the 95,000 already displaced from previous bouts of fighting in the five-year-old conflict. Thousands have been killed or displaced since the insurgency began in 2004.
Yemen also welcomed yesterday a call by Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hizbollah in Lebanon, for a ceasefire in Sa'ada. "While we appreciate Nasrallah's call for a ceasefire and his eagerness to avoid further bloodshed, we assure him that the war in Sa'ada has been imposed on the government, which is always and still keen to resort to all peaceful options in order to avoid a war," Saba quoted unnamed official source as saying.
The US embassy in Sana'a already welcomed the decision by the Yemen government to thoroughly investigate the circumstances surrounding the air strike on civilians. "The incident points to the increasingly severe humanitarian costs of the sixth round of fighting between Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government, and the need for immediate steps to address the pressing needs of the affected civilian population," the embassy said in a statement on Friday.
"A 72-hour ceasefire adhered to by both parties over the upcoming Eid holiday would provide international relief agencies an opportunity to provide emergency food and medical supplies to the tens of thousands of Yemeni citizens driven from their homes by the conflict," it added. The US urged the warring parties "to publicly announce its intention to halt hostilities during this period, in recognition of their responsibilities under international law".
According to Mahmud Taha, a local journalist based in Amran, the ceasefire is not expected to last. "I do not think the ceasefire will sustain even a few days. It will collapse just like other ceasefire offers," he said, adding that both sides have not made progress on the ground. "The government conditions for the ceasefire give justifications for the continuation," Taha said. "I think it is too early for the fighting to stop as both sides have not yet achieved their own goals; the government has not made visible progress on the ground that makes it able to force al Houthis to accept its conditions. Similarly, the rebels are looking for success that would enable them to disregard the government conditions."