After over five years of fighting in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and its coalition backing the Yemeni government against a rebel group announced they will halt their military operations for two weeks, possibly providing a small window for negotiations again.
Amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, the United Nations has called for all parties to agree to a ceasefire and instead focus on preventing an outbreak, with the country's health care system destroyed by fighting and its impoverished and malnourished population particularly vulnerable to its disease, known as COVID-19.
Backed by the U.S., the Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country, in 2015 after the Houthis, an armed Islamic movement increasingly backed by Iran, seized the capital amid mass protests.
The conflict has created what the U.N. calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with over 10,000 people killed, millions suffering from food and medical shortages, and the country on the brink of famine. Larger than the size of California and home to more than 28 million people on the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen has seen its economy collapse, a cholera epidemic that has killed nearly 4,000 people and devastating fighting for half a decade now.
While the warring sides siege cities or blockade ports, the international aid delivered to the country rarely finds its way to those in need -- with aid groups accusing the Houthis in particular of stealing or taxing food assistance even as people starve. For its part, the Saudi-led coalition has been accused of indiscriminately bombing civilians and even targeting civilian infrastructure to exacerbate the humanitarian toll.
Only 50% of Yemen's health centers are functioning, according to the aid group Oxfam International, but those that are running severely lack medicine, equipment and personnel.
With the threat of COVID-19 spreading throughout the Middle East, U.N. special envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths called for a halt to fighting and the launch of "a formal ceasefire process." Griffiths said last Thursday that he had been consulting with all the parties daily and working to convene their two sides via teleconference "soonest possible."
The Saudi announcement Wednesday, which will be implemented at noon local time on Thursday, could be an important step in that direction.
A senior Saudi official told ABC News it was a "good opportunity ... to force the Houthis and encourage them to meet the Yemeni government under the supervision of Martin Griffiths to discuss a sustained ceasefire."
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Griffiths welcomed it as a "critical moment for Yemen" and urged the parties to "now utilize this opportunity and cease immediately all hostilities with the utmost urgency, and make progress towards comprehensive and sustainable peace."
The decision does not preclude Saudi forces from defending themselves or responding to attacks on the kingdom, the official said. Armed with increasingly sophisticated weapons by the Iranian government, the Houthis have launched hundreds of missiles and small armed drones across Yemen's northern border into Saudi territory.
If the Houthis respond positively, the senior Saudi official said the coalition would extend the ceasefire by additional two-week periods.
"The Saudis have been hesitant to publicly agree to a ceasefire, lest the Houthis take advantage to move equipment or weapons," said Elana DeLozier, a research fellow at the Washington institute for Near East Policy who has studied the conflict. "A unilateral, time-bound ceasefire by the Saudis is likely an attempt to give the Houthis a chance to prove they are serious about negotiations."
But the possibility of a ceasefire is a marked contrast from the last 10 days. Heavy fighting has killed more than 270 people and wounded 300 others, and the Saudi-led coalition conducted more than 370 airstrikes, according to the Associated Press.
The two sides have also been here before. In December 2018, Griffiths finally got the parties together in Stockholm, Sweden, where they signed a deal to cease fire in major cities, exchange prisoners and work toward a long-term political solution. But since then, in fits and starts, the war has dragged on.
In one way, the continued fighting has actually protected Yemen from the coronavirus' spread because it has limited points of entry into the country, with international flights already severely limited. In March, the government shut down what flights were still operational.
But the country also relies on international imports for 80 to 90% of its basic needs, including food, according to the World Food Programme, which provides monthly food assistance to more than 12 million people. As global trade slows because of countries' travel restrictions, Yemen is at risk of those supplies drying up, WFP warned Tuesday.
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