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There’s a whisper of hope in Yemen as a cease-fire takes hold

Yemenis spend a day at the beach in the port city of Aden, seizing advantage of a cease-fire.

Yemenis spend a day at the beach in the port city of Aden, seizing advantage of a cease-fire.

(Saleh Al-Obeidi / AFP/Getty Images)

For more than a year, Yemen, a small country of outsized strategic importance, has been torn by warfare. But a fragile cease-fire has raised hopes for peace despite widespread skepticism and dozens of reported violations by the warring sides.

The truce, which came into effect at midnight Sunday, was agreed upon by the main belligerents in the conflict, which has left an estimated 6,200 people dead and thousands more injured or destitute.

On one side is Yemen’s government in exile, which is backed by neighboring Saudi Arabia. On the other are the Houthi rebels who drove out the government and now control of substantial parts of the country.

The Houthis are backed by Iran, as well as by their onetime adversary, former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who retains control of a large portion of the country’s armed forces.

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The truce agreement included commitments for “unhindered access for humanitarian supplies and personnel to all parts of Yemen,” according to a statement Monday by the United Nations special envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed.

“I ask all the parties and the international community to remain steadfast in support of this cessation of hostilities to be a first in Yemen’s return to peace,” said Ahmed. “Yemen cannot afford the loss of more lives.”

A Houthi supporter walks among graves in Sana, Yemen, on April 10, 2016, with portraits of late militia members reportedly killed in Saudi-led airstrikes and fighting with Saudi-backed Yemeni forces.

A Houthi supporter walks among graves in Sana, Yemen, on April 10, 2016, with portraits of late militia members reportedly killed in Saudi-led airstrikes and fighting with Saudi-backed Yemeni forces.

(Yahya Arhab / European Pressphoto Agency)

Saudi Arabia, which has led a coalition supporting the Yemeni government with a wide-scale aerial campaign and ground troops since March 2015, said in a statement that it was “committed to the cease-fire, but reserves the right to respond to any rebel attacks.”

The cease-fire is meant to serve as a prelude to peace talks scheduled to begin April 18 in Kuwait with the aim of reinstating the government of Yemeni President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi.

Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia shortly after the Houthis overran the Yemeni capital, Sana, in 2014. Previous attempts at ending the fighting have failed to make any headway.

Ahmed added that a U.N. committee had met in Kuwait to encourage the two sides to stick to the cease-fire, even as reports poured in of violent clashes as well as airstrikes soon after the truce began in Taizz, a strategic city 125 miles south of Sana.

Each side blamed the other for the violations. Al Masirah, a Houthi satellite television channel, also accused Saudi Arabia of dropping weapons to resupply pro-government forces trapped in Taizz.

Meanwhile, residents in Sana contacted via social media said that jets of the Saudi-led coalition had flown over the city and had bombed the northern district of Naham, on the edge of the wider Sana governorate.

The latest attempt at a cease-fire comes as a number of aid agencies warned of a humanitarian catastrophe. The World Food Program classified 10 out of 22 Yemeni governorates as being on the brink of famine, while the United Nations said the violence has forced 1 in 10 Yemenis, more than 2 million people, to flee their homes.

But that is only “the tip of the iceberg,” according to U.N., which said in a statement released Sunday that children have borne “the brunt of [the] brutal conflict,” with more than 900 killed.

They represent one-third of all civilian deaths, but also have played an increasing role as combatants. According to UNICEF, 848 Yemeni children have been recruited into the fighting forces this year, a fivefold increase since 2014.

Even in a country burdened by decades of conflict, this war has been the cruelest. Although it ostensibly pits the Saudi-backed Yemeni government against the Iranian-backed Houthis, the government’s forces are in reality an uneasy coalition of Islamists, jihadists and separatists from the country’s southern regions, all with conflicting agendas and fungible loyalties.

Despite being backed by special forces and ground troops from both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Hadi’s government has not been able to secure its hold over any part of the country.

This holds true even in the port city of Aden, where pro-government forces were able to establish a foothold against the Houthis, but which nevertheless remains too dangerous for government officials to remain for anything but brief, hours-long visits.

The Saudi-led bombing campaign, which is supported by intelligence from the U.S., has fared little better.

It has been blamed by the U.N. for the majority of civilian deaths in the country since it began 13 months ago, while failing to dislodge the Houthis from their heartland areas in Sana and the country’s northern provinces.

The chaos, meanwhile, has allowed a reenergized Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group’s deadliest branch, to operate with impunity in the country’s eastern desert areas as well as the port city of Mukalla on the Gulf of Aden.

The militant group Islamic State also has been able to create another “franchise” in the country.

Despite the high stakes, commentators on Monday cast doubt as to whether the cease-fire could hold.

“The problem is that most of the places government controlled do not follow the government and receive no support from it, neither financially nor operationally,” said political commentator Ali Bukhaiti in a phone interview from the Lebanese capital, Beirut.

In Taizz especially, he said, several factions had refused to adhere to the cease-fire and vowed to continue fighting the Houthis.

Hisham Omeisy, a Sana-based analyst, shared Bukhaiti’s doubts. He said the U.N. was to blame for what he described as its “top-down” approach to negotiating a cease-fire, inviting only the main groups to take part in peace talks while snubbing others, leaving them no stake in the cease-fire.

“If the cease-fire is conducted in this manner, then there [will be] no peace talks in the first place,” he said in a phone interview from Sana.

“The situation is now fractured with many more factions than you had before. You want to use the same model for the talks from last year without including these [new groups]? You can’t.”

Bulos is a special correspondent.


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