Saudi-led coalition to halt military operations in Yemen as U.N. urges truce

Smoke billows from a Saudi Aramco's petroleum storage facility after an attack in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia March 26, 2022. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

RIYADH, March 29 (Reuters) - The Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi group in Yemen said late on Tuesday it would halt military operations from Wednesday, following a United Nations' call for a truce during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The U.N. has been working with the Saudi-led military alliance and the Iran-aligned Houthi movement, which have been at war since 2015, to secure a peace deal and alleviate a dire humanitarian crisis in the impoverished country.

The truce is the most significant step in peace efforts in more than three years as the international community struggled to end the seven-year-old conflict that has killed tens of thousands and left millions on the brink of starvation.

"The joint forces command of the coalition announces a halt of military operations inside Yemen starting Wednesday at 6 am," Saudi state news agency SPA reported, citing a statement from the coalition's spokesman Brigadier General Turki al-Malki.

Houthi leader Mohammed al-Bukaiti tweeted that "the enforced siege on Yemen is a military act because it is enforced by the force of weapons. If the siege is not lifted, the coalition's announcement that it is halting its military operations will be meaningless.

"This means that our military operations to break the siege will continue", he added.

The decision came amid international efforts to end the Yemeni crisis and reach a comprehensive political solution, SPA said.

The U.N. proposal calls for a temporary ceasefire during Ramadan in exchange for allowing fuel ships to dock at Houthi-held Hodeidah port and a small number of commercial flights to operate from Sanaa airport, sources familiar with the matter said. Ramadan begins this weekend.

As of March 27, four fuel ships were waiting off Hodeidah port, including a tanker stuck in the coalition holding area for nearly three months, U.N. data showed.

Sanaa airport has been closed since 2015, when the coalition intervened after the Houthis ousted the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in 2014.

The coalition controls Yemen's seas and air space.

The plan drafted by U.N. special envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg is also backed by the United States and other Western powers, the two sources said.

Grundberg's spokeswoman Ismini Palla declined to comment on details of the proposal, saying that the ceasefire was aimed at giving the Yemenis a much-needed break from violence.

"The Envoy continues his discussions with all sides and calls on all to engage constructively to reach urgently a truce," she said in a statement.

PRISONER SWAP

Saudi Arabia hosted allied factions from Yemen's war on Tuesday but the Houthis said they will not attend the talks, unless they are held in a neutral country. read more

In a statement last week, the Houthis described the U.N. initiative as positive.

Riyadh's consultations are being held under the aegis of the Riyadh-based Gulf Cooperation Council and are expected to take more than a week.

The U.N. and the United States have since last year been trying to secure a permanent truce but differences over sequencing have thwarted efforts to reach a compromise between the warring sides.

The Houthis want the Saudi-led coalition to lift restrictions on sea ports and Sanaa airport first while the Saudi alliance wants a simultaneous deal.

The Houthis on Saturday announced a unilateral move to suspend cross border attacks and ground offensive operations in Yemen for three days. read more

In recent months, the group has intensified missile and drone strikes on Saudi oil facilities, causing a huge fire at fuel storage tanks on Friday. The coalition retaliated on Sunday with air strikes on Hodeidah and Sanaa, where eight people were killed including five women and two children. read more

Both sides are also discussing a prisoner swap which could see hundreds of detainees freed, including 16 Saudis and a brother of Yemen's president. read more

Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi, additional reporting by Alaa Swilam in Cairo and Mohamed Ghobari; Writing by Lilian Wagdy Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Richard Pullin

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