Countdown to Yemen ceasefire on eve of Switzerland talks

Aden (AFP) - Yemen's warring factions are set to observe a ceasefire starting Monday at midnight, the government said, despite growing signs of mutual mistrust on the eve of UN-brokered peace talks.

The truce announcement came as the Arab coalition that has been leading the war against Iran-backed rebels since March said a senior Saudi commander and an Emirati officer were killed during operations in Yemen.

A lull in fighting is sorely needed in the Arabian Peninsula's poorest nation, where an estimated 80 percent of the population requires humanitarian aid.

Jihadists, including the Islamic State group, have exploited the violence, gaining ground and carrying out deadly attacks against both sides of the conflict.

The Saudi-led coalition and rebel forces have yet to say if they will abide by the ceasefire agreement, despite reassurance last week by the UN envoy that Riyadh had promised to pause its aerial assault during talks.

Mueen Abdulmalek, a member of the coalition-backed government's delegation at peace talks, told AFP that the ceasefire will start at midnight local time (2100 GMT).

"We hope the militias will commit to the ceasefire this time," he said, referring to the rebels.

A presidency official confirmed the truce was agreed by President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi and Yemen's UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed.

Yemen's conflict has pitted local forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition fighting in support of Hadi's government against the Shiite Huthis and renegade troops still loyal to wealthy ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Previous UN efforts have failed to narrow differences, and past ceasefires were broken.

The government has said that the latest truce -- which will coincide with open-ended talks that open Tuesday at an undisclosed location in Switzerland -- would last seven days and is renewable.

Ahead of the midnight deadline, Saudi Colonel Abdullah al-Sahyan and Emirati officer Sultan al-Kitbi died while supervising operations "to liberate" the southwestern Taez province, the coalition said.

Yemen's presidency described them as "martyrs" who died in an honourable battle" in a statement that also praised the coalition's role in supporting "Yemen's legitimate authority in regaining control of state institutions".

A Yemeni military source said they were killed when rebels fired a rocket at a coastal road in Taez, which overlooks the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait through which much of the world's maritime traffic passes.

Fierce fighting between the rebels and pro-Hadi forces continued on Monday in the southern Daleh province, witnesses said.

- Rebels 'cannot be trusted' -

Both pro-Hadi forces and insurgent groups have traded barbs over each side's willingness to stick to the truce.

And there has been no word from Saleh or his General People's Congress party, which is represented at the Switzerland talks.

The warring sides have agreed to talks despite protracted differences, including over UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which calls for rebels to withdraw from key cities and surrender their weapons.

The government and its Gulf allies say the resolution is a prerequisite for peace.

According to the UN envoy, talks will focus on four main areas, including the terms of a permanent ceasefire and the withdrawal of armed groups from areas they control.

The Huthis, who have long complained of marginalisation, seized government headquarters in Sanaa in September 2014, several months after advancing from their northern stronghold of Saada.

They later encroached on second city Aden, forcing Hadi into exile in Saudi Arabia.

In November, Hadi returned to Aden and declared it his provisional capital.

Under cover of coalition warplanes and backed by Arab soldiers and heavy weaponry, pro-government forces have recaptured five southern provinces, including Aden, since July.

The United Nations says more than 5,800 people have been killed in Yemen, about half of them civilians, and more than 27,000 wounded since March.

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