Saudi Arabia said to resume talks with Iran-backed Houthis as truce falters

Aid groups say a coronavirus outbreak could be catastrophic given Yemen’s shattered health-care system and widespread hunger and disease.
Sunday 19/04/2020
Armed Houthi followers ride on the back of a truck outside a hospital in Sana’a, Yemen, April 8. (Reuters)
Internal divisions. Armed Houthi followers ride on the back of a truck outside a hospital in Sana’a, Yemen, April 8. (Reuters)

LONDON - Saudi Arabia is said to have resumed indirect talks with Yemen’s Houthi movement to cement a faltering ceasefire, sources familiar with the discussions said, as the United Nations pushes for a de-escalation to prepare for a coronavirus outbreak.

The Iran-backed Houthis have yet to accept the nationwide truce prompted by the pandemic and fighting between the Houthi rebels and forces loyal to the exiled government has escalated. But UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths said he expected the two sides to formally agree on a ceasefire and economic and humanitarian measures in the “immediate future.” On April 17, the UN Security Council endorsed the coalition’s announced ceasefire and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s call for a truce.

The Saudi and Emirati-led coalition fighting to restore Yemen’s internationally recognised government announced the two-week ceasefire beginning April 9, but the Iran-backed Houthis demanded more concessions.

On April 16, Mohamed Abdel Salam, a spokesman for the Iran-backed Houthis, said the current UN proposal fails to address the Houthis’ central demand to lift an air-and-sea blockade.

The Houthis were accused of breaching the terms of the truce announced by the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition 241 times in 48 hours, including by firing heavy weaponry and ballistic missile attacks in the central governorates of Marib, al-Jawf and Nihm.

The area has been subject to fierce battles since the beginning of this year, which have displaced almost 40,000 people.

The ceasefire declaration, a day before Yemen recorded its first infection of the coronavirus, was in part aimed at helping curb a potential coronavirus outbreak in the war-wracked country.

Aid groups say a coronavirus outbreak could be catastrophic given Yemen’s shattered health-care system and widespread hunger and disease after five years of war in which more than 100,000 have been killed.

Saudi and Houthi officials recently communicated as Riyadh strives to reach an understanding on a binding truce, two sources close to the discussions said.

 “Saudi Arabia is very serious about ending the war but it will depend on how far they can go to appease the Houthis and build some trust,” said one of the sources.

 The renewed push came after the coalition conducted air strikes on Houthi-controlled towns and villages, despite the ceasefire, to halt Houthi advances in al-Jawf in the north and towards Marib city, the last stronghold of the Saudi-backed government in central Yemen, local officials said.

The violence could complicate UN efforts to hold virtual talks to agree on a mechanism for a permanent truce, a coordinated effort to combat the coronavirus and confidence-building measures to restart stalled peace negotiations.

Houthi officials have dismissed the coalition’s truce announcement as a ploy and said the group has submitted a comprehensive proposal to the United Nations.

 “The prospect of the coronavirus spreading in Yemen offers a moment and indeed a humanitarian imperative to revive a political process,” April Longley Alley, deputy programme director for MENA at International Crisis Group said.

“But a ceasefire agreement alone may not be possible and certainly will not be durable absent a package of economic and humanitarian confidence-building measures and a plan to revive a political process.”

Riyadh has been holding back-channel talks with the Houthis since late last year but little progress has been made on a truce that could help relaunch talks to end the conflict, largely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

One of the sources said there are differences within the movement, with some Houthi officials wanting to accept the truce and others insisting the alliance should first end a sea and air blockade. The coalition says it aims to prevent arms smuggling by patrolling Yemen’s coast and controlling the airspace.

“I believe there is genuine interest on both sides to bring this conflict to an end, but they just don’t know how,” said Abdulghani Al-Iryani, senior researcher at the Sana’a Centre for Strategic Studies.

(With news agencies)