Saudi-led coalition announces Yemen cease-fire to avoid COVID-19 outbreak

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The Saudi-led coalition fighting Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels will begin a two-week cease-fire on Thursday in the face of a COVID-19 outbreak, senior Saudi officials said Wednesday.

The cease-fire will start at noon Saudi Arabia time on Thursday, they said.

The coalition was halting military operations nationwide to support a U.N. cease-fire initiative, three sources familiar with the matter told Reuters.

The suspension cease-fire was agreed in part to avoid a potential outbreak of the new coronavirus in Yemen, where no cases have yet been reported, two of the sources said.

It was unclear if the Houthi movement would follow the coalition’s decision.

“We are announcing a cease-fire starting (Thursday) for two weeks. We are expecting the Huthis (Yemeni rebels) will accept. We are preparing the ground to fight COVID-19,” in Yemen, the official said. “The unilateral cease-fire will begin at 0900 GMT on Thursday,” he added.

Meanwhile, Mohammed Abdulsalam, a spokesman of the Houthi movement, said his group has sent to the U.N. a comprehensive vision that includes an end to the war and to “the blockade” imposed on Yemen.

“(Our proposal) will lay the foundations for political dialogue and a transitional period,” Abdulsalam said in a Twitter post on Wednesday.

Last week, U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths sent a proposal to the internationally recognized government, the Saudi-led military coalition that supports it and the Houthi movement that controls the capital Sanaa and most of northern Yemen.

The parties are expected to convene via video conference to discuss the proposal which calls for a nationwide cease-fire, including halting all air, ground and naval hostilities, and for the parties to ensure compliance by forces on frontlines.

The U.N. and Western allies have been pointing to the threat of coronavirus to push Yemen’s combatants to agree to fresh talks to end a war that has left millions vulnerable to disease.

Yemen had witnessed a lull in military action after Saudi Arabia and the Houthis launched back-channel talks late last year. But there has been a recent spike in violence that threatens fragile peace deals in vital port cities.

Yemen has been mired in conflict since the Houthis ousted the government from power in Sanaa, in late 2014. The five-year-old conflict, largely seen in the region as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and its 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 and forced thousands to seek shelter in displacement camps.

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