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Saudi officials announce Yemen cease-fire amid pandemic

CAIRO (AP) — Saudi officials said the coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen will begin a cease-fire starting Thursday.

The officials told journalists Wednesday night the decision was in response to U.N. calls to halt hostilities amid the coronavirus pandemic.

They said the cease-fire will be for two weeks, during which the coalition supporting Yemen’s internationally recognized government will support U.N. efforts to bring the rival parties to the table for peace talks.

“We remain committed to the cease-fire and we will see what is the response by the Houthis,” one of the Saudi officials said. “We hope with effort of the U.N. and members of the Security Council (this will) put pressure on the Houthis to stop the hostilities … and to be serious in engagement with the Yemeni government.”

There was no immediate response from the Houthis.

The Saudi officials spoke on condition of anonymity to address details of the cease-fire.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said earlier this month that warring parties in 11 countries had responded positively to his appeal for a global cease-fire to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

The announcement came as heavy fighting in Yemen between pro-government forces and the Houthis killed more than 270 people in the past 10 days, according to government officials and tribal leaders.

Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest nation, has been convulsed by civil war since 2014. That’s when the Houthis took control of the country’s north, including the capital Sanaa. A Saudi-led military coalition intervened against the Houthis the following year. Despite relentless Saudi airstrikes and a blockade of Yemen, the war has stalemated.

Officials said Wednesday that forces of the internationally recognized government dealt a heavy blow to Houthi forces in the provinces of Marib, Jawf and Bayda.

The U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition backing the government of President Abed Rabou Mansour Hadi carried out more than 370 airstrikes against the Houthis in less than two weeks, the officials said.

They said the clashes have left more than 270 dead and at least 300 wounded from both sides, with the Houthis suffering heavy losses.

The officials commenting on the fighting spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media, while the tribal leaders did so for fear of reprisals.

Abdu Abdullah Magli, spokesman for the Yemeni Armed Forces, said they wrested control of the strategic Hilan mountains, west of the oil-rich province of Marib about 115 kilometers (70 miles) east of the Houthi-controlled capital, Sanaa.

He said the government forces reclaimed the Labnat military camp in Jawf province and were progressing toward the strategic northern city of Hazm, the provincial capital of Jawf.

The Houthis, who took Hazm last month, dismissed the government claims, saying they still control the camp.

Yahia Sarea, a spokesman for the Houthi forces, said they fired a ballistic missile targeting government forces in southern Abyan province. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

The violence flared up late last month after a foiled rebel drone and missile attack targeting the Saudi capital. Saudi Arabia’s Air Defense Forces said they intercepted and destroyed a ballistic missile over Riyadh. Another missile was also intercepted and destroyed over the southern Saudi city of Jizan, which borders Yemen, they said.

The missile attack prompted the coalition to launch an intensive air campaign on rebel-held Sanaa and other areas, in what they say was aimed at “destroying legitimate military targets” held by the Houthis.

The conflict has killed over 10,000 people and created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, leaving millions suffering from food and medical care shortages and pushing the country to the brink of famine.

Michael reported from Cairo.

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