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

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A Saudi-led coalition battling Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis began observing Wednesday a unilateral cease-fire in the yearslong war, despite the rebels' rejection of the proposal.

The Saudi-proposed pause in fighting ahead of the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan began at 6 a.m., following an announcement late Tuesday. In the past, several similar truce efforts have failed, and there was no immediate independent confirmation on whether the hostilities had in fact paused between Saudi-led forces and the Houthi rebels.

The Houthis are skipping an ongoing summit over the war called by the Saudi-based Gulf Cooperation Council because it’s taking place in Saudi Arabia, their adversary’s territory.

Houthi official Mohammed al-Bukaiti rejected the cease-fire offer, citing the Saudi-led coalition's continued closure of the airport in Sanaa, Yemen's capital, and its restrictions on the country’s ports.

“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,” al-Bukaiti wrote on Twitter early Wednesday.

The United Nations and others had been pushing the warring sides to reach a truce for Ramadan, as has tenuously occurred in the past. Ramadan 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 Tuesday in Riyadh. On Wednesday, Saudi state television aired an open portion of the discussions live.

GCC Secretary-General Nayef al-Hajraf welcomed Yemeni delegates 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 U.N. special envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, called the Saudi-led coalition's cease-fire offer “a step in the right direction" and wished the delegates success in their talks, which are expected to continue through April 7.

At the United Nations in New York, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Grundberg expressed hope that discussions at the conference “will help increase momentum toward bringing the Yemeni parties back to the negotiating table under U.N. auspices.”

Grundberg will be going to Muscat in Oman on Thursday where he will be meeting with a Houthi delegation, Dujarric added.

Noting that the Houthis recently welcomed a temporary halt to military operations in Yemen, Dujarric said Grundberg’s message to all parties is “to adhere to what both have kind of said publicly, which is a cessation or pause of the fighting during the month of Ramadan.”

The war in Yemen, the Arab world's most impoverished country, began in September 2014, when the Houthis swept into Sanaa from their northwestern stronghold. 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.

A Saudi-led coalition, including the UAE, 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.

Saudi airstrikes have killed hundreds of civilians. The Houthis have used child soldiers and indiscriminately laid landmines across the country.


Associated Press writers Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.