'Coronavirus ceasefire' in Yemen's long conflict dismissed by rebels

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A Yemeni volunteer sprays disinfectant in a poor district of the capital Sanaa amid fears of a coronavirus outbreak

The Saudi-led coalition said it began observing a unilateral ceasefire in war-wracked Yemen on Thursday to prevent the spread of coronavirus, but Huthi rebels dismissed the initiative as political manoeuvering.

The coalition said a two-week pause in the five year-conflict took effect from 0900 GMT, but a spokesman for the Huthis alleged air strikes continued to pound targets in Yemen after that.

"The aggression didn't stop... and until this moment there are tens of continuous air strikes," Huthi spokesman Mohamed Abdelsalam told Al Jazeera news network some five hours after the truce began.

"We consider the ceasefire a political and media manoeuver" to bolster the image of the coalition "in this critical moment when the world is facing" the coronavirus pandemic, he added.

The Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen's conflict in support of an internationally recognised government in 2015, pitting it against the Iran-aligned Huthi rebels.

If the ceasefire were to take root, it would be the first breakthrough since the warring parties agreed to a UN-brokered truce in the port city of Hodeida during talks in Sweden in late 2018.

The truce offer was welcomed by the United States, key Saudi-led coalition partner the United Arab Emirates, UN chief Antonio Guterres and the Arab League.

"The announcement is a constructive response to the UN Secretary General's call for the parties to focus on countering the COVID-19 pandemic", US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

"We urge the Huthis to respond in kind to the coalition's initiative," he added.

The UAE, which drew down its troops in Yemen last year as the conflict became increasingly intractable, said the Saudi move was "wise and responsible".

"Hope the Huthis rise to the occasion. The COVID-19 crisis eclipses everything -- the international community must step up efforts & work together to protect the Yemeni people," UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted.

- Wider solution -

Yasser Al-Houri, secretary of the Huthis' political council, poured cold water on the coalition's declaration, saying that the Saudis "are dishonest and violate every truce they announce".

"The announcement of this truce is to evade the true national vision that offers real solutions," he said, referring to a roadmap for peace unveiled by the rebels on Wednesday.

The declaration of the ceasefire follows an escalation in fighting between the warring parties.

Saudi Arabia said Wednesday that the truce, which may be extended, could pave the way for a wider political solution.

Officials indicated they are keen for a UN-sponsored face-to-face meeting with the rebels to achieve a permanent ceasefire.

Hours before the announcement, the Huthis released a document that called for a withdrawal of foreign troops and the end of the coalition's blockade on Yemen's land, sea and air ports.

The rebels also demanded that the coalition pay government salaries for the next decade and hand over compensation for rebuilding, including homes destroyed in air strikes.

Guterres, who has called for an "immediate global ceasefire" to help avert disaster for vulnerable people in conflict zones, welcomed the truce offer, urging the government and Huthis to enter negotiations.

"Only through dialogue will the parties be able to agree on a mechanism for sustaining a nationwide ceasefire, humanitarian and economic confidence-building measures to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people, and the resumption of the political process to reach a comprehensive settlement to end the conflict," he said.

- 'Rare opportunity' -

The declared ceasefire comes as Saudi Arabia, reeling from plunging oil prices, seeks to extricate itself from the costly conflict that has killed tens of thousands of Yemeni people and triggered what the UN calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

Yemen's broken healthcare system has so far recorded no cases of the COVID-19 illness, but aid groups have warned that when it does hit, the impact will be catastrophic.

Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit hailed the ceasefire offer as a "rare opportunity to stop the bloodshed in Yemen".

Fighting had recently re-escalated between the Huthis and Riyadh-backed Yemeni government troops around the strategic northern provinces of Al-Jouf and Marib, after a months-long lull.

Fatima Abo Alasrar, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, noted that "the Huthis have currently opened multiple battlefronts they cannot afford to close."

Saudi air defences intercepted Yemeni rebel missiles over Riyadh and the border city of Jizan in March, leaving two civilians wounded in the curfew-locked capital, state media reported.

It was the first major assault on Saudi Arabia since the Huthis offered last September to halt attacks on the kingdom after devastating missile and drone strikes on Saudi oil installations.

Last week, the coalition carried out multiple air strikes on Yemen's rebel-held capital Sanaa in retaliation for the missile strikes.

A Yemeni volunteer sprays disinfectant in a poor district of the capital Sanaa amid fears of a coronavirus outbreak

Yemen has not recorded any cases of coronavirus but aid groups have warned it would be catastrophic�

The Iran-backed Huthi rebels have not yet commented on the unilateral ceasefire by the Saudi-led coalition