The Saudi-led coalition fighting Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi movement said on Wednesday it was halting military operations nationwide in support of U.N. efforts to end a five-year war that has killed tens of thousands and spread hunger and disease.
The move aims to facilitate talks sponsored by U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths for a permanent ceasefire, and was decided in part to avoid a potential outbreak of the new coronavirus in Yemen, where no cases have been reported so far, coalition spokesman Col. Turki al-Malki said.
It will go into effect at midday on Thursday for two weeks and is open to extension, he said in a statement.
The announcement is the first major breakthrough since the United Nations convened the warring parties in late 2018 in Sweden where they signed a ceasefire in the port city of Hodeidah.
But it is unclear if the Houthis will follow the coalition’s decision.
Spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam said the Houthis had sent the United Nations a comprehensive vision which includes an end to the war and to “the blockade” imposed on Yemen.
“(Our proposal) will lay the foundations for a political dialogue and a transitional period,” he tweeted on Wednesday.
Last week, U.N. envoy Griffiths sent a proposal to the internationally-recognised government, the Saudi-led military coalition that supports it, and the Houthi movement that controls the capital Sanaa and most of northern Yemen.
Griffiths welcomed the coalition’s announcement and called on the warring parties to “utilize this opportunity and cease immediately all hostilities with the utmost urgency, and make progress towards comprehensive and sustainable peace.”
The parties are expected to convene via video conference to discuss the proposal, which calls for halting all air, ground and naval hostilities.
A senior Saudi official, speaking to reporters in Washington, said Riyadh hoped during the next two weeks the U.N. Security Council would help pressure the Houthis “to stop the hostilities”, join the ceasefire “and also to be serious in such engagement with the Yemeni government”.
The United Nations and Western allies have pointed to the threat of the coronavirus to push Yemen’s combatants to agree to fresh talks to end a war that has left millions vulnerable to disease. The United States and the United Kingdom have provided the coalition with arms, intelligence and logistics support.
Yemen had witnessed a lull in military action after Saudi Arabia and the Houthis began back-channel talks late last year.
But a recent spike in violence, including ballistic missiles fired towards Riyadh last month and retaliatory coalition air strikes, threatens fragile peace deals in vital port cities.
Yemen, already the Arab world’s poorest country, has been mired in conflict since the Houthis ousted the government from power in Sanaa, in late 2014.
The conflict, largely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and regional arch-foe Iran, has killed more than 100,000 people and unleashed an urgent humanitarian crisis that has pushed millions to the verge of famine, sparked cholera outbreaks and forced millions to seek shelter in displacement camps.