* UN pushing for de-escalation as outbreak looms
* COVID-19 could be catastrophe for Yemen -aid groups
* Violence may complicate efforts to secure permanent truce
By Aziz El Yaakoubi and Lisa Barrington
DUBAI, April 14 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia has 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-aligned Houthis have yet to accept the nationwide truce prompted by the pandemic and announced by the Saudi-led coalition last week, and violence has continued on several frontlines.
The ceasefire was meant to take effect on Thursday, a day before Yemen recorded its first infection of the virus.
Aid groups say a coronavirus outbreak could be catastrophic given Yemen’s shattered health system and widespread hunger and disease after five years of war in which more than 100,000 have been killed.
Saudi and Houthi officials communicated over the weekend as Riyadh strives to reach an understanding on a binding truce, two sources close to the discussions told Reuters.
“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 coalition spokesman and the Saudi government media office did not respond to a Reuters’ request for comment.
The violence could complicate U.N. efforts to hold virtual talks to agree 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.
Saudi Arabia, which came under intense Western scrutiny after the 2018 murder of prominent Saudi jounalist Jamal Khashoggi, has been trying to exit a costly and unpopular war that has been in military stalemate for years.
Its key coalition partner the United Arab Emirates last year scaled down its military presence in Yemen, leaving Riyadh to lead the campaign.
As the kingdom deals with the impact of the coronavirus outbreak and a plunge in crude prices on its own economy, the matter has taken on added urgency, said April Longley Alley, deputy program director, MENA, at International Crisis Group.
“The prospect of the coronavirus spreading in Yemen offers a moment and indeed a humanitarian imperative to revive a political process,” she told Reuters. “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 backchannel 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 Center for Strategic Studies. (Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi, additional reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous, William Maclean)