A humanitarian cease-fire appeared to begin in Yemen late Tuesday, after six weeks of bombardment by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition opposed to Houthi rebels who control much of the country.
The capital, Sana, was quiet as the 11 p.m. hour marking the start of the five-day cease-fire arrived. An hour earlier, blasts from airstrikes had been heard in Sana, which has weathered days of heavy bombardment.
Both sides in the bloody conflict have agreed in principle to abide by the truce, which is designed to allow the delivery of food, medical aid and other assistance to the Arab world’s poorest nation. The fighting has left hundreds dead and raised the specter of a humanitarian catastrophe.
It was unclear how long the cease-fire would last in a nation awash in arms and riven with various armed factions, some loyal only to local commanders. Nor was it evident whether the pause would lead to broader peace talks to help resolve the crisis.
Another question was how aid would be delivered in a vast, insecure nation that has suffered heavy damage to key logistics infrastructure, including airports, harbors, bridges and roads. Yemen is largely dependent on imports of food and medicine to meet domestic needs.
The Saudis and their Houthi adversaries have both warned that any breach in the cease-fire could lead to a resumption of hostilities.
A fresh round of Saudi-led airstrikes had pounded the positions of Houthi rebels in the hours before the proposed cease-fire was to begin. Bombardment hit Sana and other Houthi-controlled areas, including the northern province of Hajja, near the border with Saudi Arabia, where 40 were killed and more than 50 wounded in airstrikes, according to the Saba state news outlet.
A separate assault on a market in the town of Zabid in Hodaidah province left 20 dead and at least 40 wounded, according to a security official contacted by phone Tuesday. The town’s hospital was suffering from a severe shortage of medical supplies, Saba reported.
Saudi Arabia has stepped up its bombing campaign in recent days, leading to large numbers of casualties, according to various reports. Fighting has also raged in a number of provinces, including the heavily contested southern port city of Aden. Various armed militias, including Al Qaeda-linked groups, are involved in the fighting.
The six days between May 4-10 were the deadliest since fighting began in Yemen in March, the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said Tuesday in a statement. At least 182 civilians were confirmed killed during that six-day period, about half of them women and children, the U.N. said.
Since the Saudi-led bombing campaign began March 26, the U.N. said, at least 828 civilians have been killed and more than 1,500 injured.
Saudi officials said they decided to intervene in Yemen in a bid to stop Houthi advances and restore the government of exiled President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, who is in Saudi Arabia. He fled Sana after the Houthis seized the capital and placed him under house arrest. The prospects for Hadi’s return remain cloudy.
Many officials in Saudi Arabia, a largely Sunni Muslim nation, view the Houthis as proxies of Shiite Iran, Riyadh’s major regional rival. The Houthis, mostly members of a minority Shiite sect in predominantly Sunni Yemen, say their alliance with Iran is not a military one. Iran has voiced support for the five-day proposed cease-fire and harshly criticized the Saudi air campaign. Washington has backed its Saudi allies.
The Houthis accuse Saudi Arabia of working with Al Qaeda elements to assert Saudi dominance over Yemen, which shares a long border with Saudi Arabia.
In the hours before the cease-fire was to begin, the new U.N. envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, a Mauritanian diplomat, arrived in Sana.
“We are convinced there is no solution to Yemen’s problem except through a dialogue, which must be Yemeni,” the envoy said, according to news agencies.
The U.N. welcomed the cease-fire and said it should be used “as the basis for a more permanent cessation of hostilities.”
Aid agencies warned that the Saudi-led coalition’s blockade of fuel shipments to Yemen is exacerbating the nation’s problems.
In a statement released Tuesday, Human Rights Watch said Yemen was in “urgent need of fuel to power generators for hospitals overwhelmed” with casualties.
“The rising civilian casualties from the fighting could become dwarfed by the harm caused to civilians by the coalition blockade on fuel, if it continues,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “It is unclear how much longer Yemen’s remaining hospitals have before the lights go out.”
Aside from the human toll, the strikes on Sana have also raised fears of inflicting irreparable damage on the historic old city quarter, a UNESCO heritage site.
A statement by UNESCO released Tuesday condemned the strikes, saying they were destroying the country’s “unique cultural heritage, which is the repository of the people’s identity, history and memory.”
Special correspondent Al-Alayaa reported from Sana and Times staff writer McDonnell from Antakya, Turkey. Special correspondents Nabih Bulos in Antakya and Amro Hassan in Berlin contributed to this report.