Sporadic fighting in Yemen ahead of midnight ceasefire



Sporadic fighting gripped parts of Yemen on Sunday, just hours before a UN-brokered ceasefire aimed at laying groundwork for upcoming peace talks was due to take effect.

Chaos has ruled Yemen since Iran-backed Huthi rebels overran the capital in September 2014 and advanced to other regions, prompting a Saudi-led military campaign in support of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi in March last year.

It is hoped that the new ceasefire, which enters into effect at midnight (2100 GMT) Sunday, will serve as the cornerstone of a long-lasting peace deal which will be negotiated between Yemeni warring parties on April 18 in Kuwait.

Fighting raged on Sunday in regions surrounding Sanaa, while the rebel-held capital itself, which has been regularly bombed by coalition warplanes, was quiet.

Huthi rebels and their allies exchanged mortar and artillery fire with pro-Hadi forces in the Sarwah region of Marib province, east of Sanaa, an AFP correspondent said.

Coalition warplanes carried out fresh air strikes to stop rebels seeking to take back a military base that pro-government forces had recaptured in late 2015, military sources said.

Clashes also went on further north in Nihm, around 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Sanaa, witnesses said.

Residents of Sanaa spent a quiet night without the sound of coalition aircraft, which have intensified raids in recent weeks, according to an AFP photographer in the capital.

The planned truce was only agreed by the warring sides after months of shuttle diplomacy by UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed.

The rebels and Hadi’s government said this week that they have submitted their remarks to the UN mediator on the terms of the ceasefire, which will test their willingness to negotiate a peace deal at the Kuwait talks.

“We will go to the consultations (in Kuwait) to achieve peace,” Hadi reiterated on Saturday, insisting however that the rebels must commit to UN Security Council Resolution 2216 which calls for their withdrawal from seized territories and disarmament.

Previous UN-sponsored negotiations between the rebels and the government failed to make any headway, and a ceasefire in December was repeatedly violated and eventually abandoned by the Saudi-led Arab coalition on January 2.

But analysts are more optimistic this time after mediation efforts have largely silenced guns along Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia, while a Huthi delegation visited Riyadh for talks.

The Huthis and Saudi Arabia exchanged prisoners in March after unprecedented talks mediated by tribes along the frontier, where dozens have been killed in cross-border shelling.

“For the first time, the groups that can end major military operations, particularly the Saudis and the Huthis, appear to be more willing to do so,” said April Longley Alley, a Yemen specialist at the International Crisis Group.

But “even if major combat ends, the road to peace in Yemen will be long and difficult and internal conflict is likely to continue for some time,” she said.

– Residents doubtful –
Yemenis appear to have learned not to get their hopes up after previous ceasefires failed.

“I do not expect the truce to succeed,” says Zayed al-Qaisi, a resident of Marib. “The Huthis have not honoured their commitments during the wars against the state since 2004.”

The Huthis fought six wars with the central government between 2004 and 2010 that killed thousands. Their main foe then, veteran president Ali Abdullah Saleh who was ousted in 2012, is now their ally fighting the government.

“Even the government cannot force us to respect a ceasefire as we have not liberated our territories” seized by the rebels, said Qaisi, armed with a Kalashnikov rifle like most tribesmen in Yemen.

Others in Sanaa voiced doubts that Saudi Arabia would commit to the truce.

“Saudi Arabia is just procrastinating and being deceptive,” said 50-year-old Sanaa resident Ali Mohsen.

Umm Mohammed, waiting for her children outside a school in central Sanaa, agreed that the truce is “a deception. We tried it unsuccessfully before.”

“I want a real end to the war,” she added.

More than 6,300 people have been killed in the year-long fighting in impoverished Yemen, with about half of the victims being civilians while 30,000 have been wounded, according to the United Nations.

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