Aid flows in Yemen as temporary ceasefire takes hold
SANAA - Aid agencies began delivering help to desperate civilians Wednesday as a temporary ceasefire took hold in Yemen after nearly seven weeks of Saudi-led air strikes against Iran-backed rebels.
The five-day humanitarian pause -- which began at 11:00 pm (2000 GMT) on Tuesday -- is the first break in the air war in support of exiled President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi since its launch on March 26 and has strong backing from Washington.
The Huthi rebels and their allies have indicated they will abide by the ceasefire but Riyadh has warned it will punish any attempt to exploit it for military advantage.
As aid agencies said they were starting to deliver assistance, residents of the rebel-held capital Sanaa said the ceasefire came as a much-needed relief.
"We hope this truce becomes permanent. We finally managed to sleep peacefully last night," said 25-year-old Mohammed al-Saadi.
Saudi Arabia's King Salman also used the first day of the pause to announce the doubling of the kingdom's aid commitment to Yemen to some $540 million.
More than 1,500 people have been killed since mid-March in the air campaign and fighting between rebel forces and Hadi loyalists, according to the United Nations.
The Huthi rebels, allied with army units loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, have taken control of large parts of Yemen including Sanaa and were advancing on Hadi's southern stronghold of Aden when Riyadh launched the air campaign.
Saudi Arabia has accused regional rival Iran of arming and funding the rebels, a charge Tehran denies.
The weeks since the start of the air war have seen repeated warnings of a dire humanitarian crisis, with shortages of food, water, fuel and medical aid.
UN agencies and private aid groups had been preparing to boost their efforts since the ceasefire was announced last week and on Wednesday began taking steps.
A ship chartered by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), which arrived in Yemen last week, began distributing its shipment of much-needed fuel to areas across the country, an industry official in the port city of Hodeidah said.
The country has been suffering from severe fuel shortages -- grinding humanitarian operations to a halt -- and news of the deliveries prompted motorists to start queing at petrol stations in Sanaa, residents said.
The head of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Yemen, Marie-Elisabeth Ingres, said that her group was hoping to "take advantage of the truce that seems to be holding".
A plane carrying medical aid and MSF personnel was expected to arrive in Yemen later Wednesday, she said, with a second aircraft set to follow on Thursday.
But the five-day truce is "not sufficient given the needs of the population," Ingres said, insisting on the need for "permanent access" to all regions affected by the conflict.
Iran has also announced it is sending an aid ship to Yemen, prompting a fresh war of words with Washington.
Iranian Brigadier General Masoud Jazayeri warned the United States against stopping the ship, after Washington said it was tracking its movements.
Jazayeri said that if Saudi Arabia or the United States "continue to create obstacles on Iran's aid delivery, a fire might start that would definitely be out of their control."
It took several hours for the ceasefire to take hold fully, with residents and loyalists reporting continued skirmishes in the southern provinces of Daleh and Shabwa, as well as in third city Taez and the eastern oil province of Marib.
But by Wednesday morning the guns appeared to have largely fallen silent.
"Sanaa had a quiet night," resident Tawfiq Abdulwahab said. "The noise of bombs and anti-aircraft fire that had terrified everyone came to a halt."
The newly appointed UN envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, arrived in Sanaa on Tuesday for talks on restarting a collapsed political dialogue.
"We are not ready to announce a date for talks but that remains the goal," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said, adding that "the fact that he got into Sanaa and is meeting with the Huthis today is a sign in the right direction."