Saudi Arabia offers ceasefire plan to Yemen rebels


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Saudi Arabia on Monday offered a ceasefire proposal to Yemen’s Houthi rebels that includes reopening their country’s main airport, the kingdom’s latest attempt to halt years of fighting in a war. It has triggered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

The move comes after rebels stepped up a campaign of drone and missile strikes on the kingdom’s oil sites, briefly rocking global energy prices amid the coronavirus pandemic. It also occurs when Riyadh tries to rehabilitate its image with the United States under President Joe Biden. Saudi Arabia has been criticized internationally for airstrikes that kill civilians and embargoes that exacerbate hunger in a nation on the brink of famine.

Whether the plan will take hold remains another question. A unilaterally declared Saudi ceasefire collapsed last year. Fighting the havoc in the crucial city of Marib and the Saudi-led coalition launched airstrikes as recently as Sunday against Yemen’s capital Sanaa. A UN mission said another suspected airstrike hit a food production company in the port city of Hodeida.

“We want the weapons to go completely silent,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan told reporters at a televised press conference in Riyadh. “Now it is up to the Houthis. We are ready to go today. We hope we can have an immediate ceasefire, but the responsibility lies with the Houthis. “

A senior Houthi official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in accordance with the regulations, said the rebels were aware of the proposal and in direct communication with the Saudis, as well as with Omani interlocutors. However, he said the Saudis must do more to see a ceasefire implemented, something reiterated by others in the Iranian-backed rebel group.

Saudi Arabia said the plan would be presented to both the Houthis and Yemen’s internationally recognized government later on Monday. Both would have to agree to the plan for it to move forward, and UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths is likely to set a timetable.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres welcomed the announcement, said UN Deputy Spokesperson Farhan Haq.

“There is no doubt that every effort must be made to end the conflict and the suffering of the Yemeni people, and the United Nations looks forward to continuing its work with the parties to achieve this goal,” Haq said.

He said Griffiths “has been working extensively with the parties to see what can be done to bring them together in the kind of proposals that he made in the Security Council. … So he will get in touch with the Houthis, as with all parties, to see if we can go further. “

Saudi Arabia made two concessions to the Houthis in the plan, without offering everything the rebels previously wanted. The first involves the reopening of Sanaa International Airport, a vital link for Yemen to the outside world that has not had regular commercial flights since 2015. Officials did not immediately identify which trade routes they wanted to resume.

The second would see taxes, customs and other fees generated by the Hodeida port while the oil import was deposited into a joint account of the Central Bank of Yemen. That account would be available to the Houthis and Yemen’s recognized government to pay public officials and fund other programs, the officials said.

The Saudi government and the Yemeni government it backs have accused the Houthis of stealing those funds in the past. A report this year by a UN panel of experts said the Houthis “diverted” some $ 200 million from that fund.

“Only a small part of the funds was used to pay salaries,” says the report.

Whether the Houthis accept the Saudi proposal is in doubt. On Friday, Houthi leader Mohammed Ali al-Houthi proposed a nationwide ceasefire subject to Saudi Arabia reopening Sanaa airport to commercial flights and lifting restrictions on cargo shipments to Hodeida. The port handles most of the country’s vital imports. Both are long-standing demands from the Houthis, who came to Sanaa from their northwestern strongholds in September 2014.

“There is nothing new in the Saudi initiative,” another senior Houthi official told the AP on condition of anonymity according to regulations. “First, the airport and the port must be opened.”

Prince Faisal criticized the Houthis for making “just more and more demands.”

“The Houthis must decide whether to put their interests first or … Iran’s interests first,” the prince said.

The Saudi-led coalition entered the Yemen war in March 2015 when the Houthis threatened to take over Yemen’s port city of Aden and completely invade the country’s internationally recognized government. The Saudis promised that the offensive, a brainchild of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, would end in no time.

Six years later, the fight continues. The war has killed about 130,000 people, including more than 13,000 civilians killed in targeted attacks, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Project. Tens of thousands of children have died of hunger and disease. The conflict has also turned into a regional conflict, with the Saudis using US-made weaponry and Iran linked to weapons used by the Houthis. to target the kingdom.

Last week, Griffiths warned that “the war has returned in full force.” Hundreds of fighters have been killed in the offensive in Marib, while other front lines that were once dormant have seen renewed fighting. Saudi television channels repeatedly show black and white drone footage to dramatic music of bombs falling on suspected Houthi targets.

The internationally recognized government of Yemen hailed the Saudi initiative as an effort to “alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people.” But in a statement, its Foreign Ministry also warned that the Houthis had “carried out all previous initiatives with stubbornness and procrastination” and had “worked to deepen the humanitarian crisis.”

Since Biden took office, his administration reversed a decision by former President Donald Trump to name the Houthis a foreign terrorist organization, allowing American aid to flow into rebel-held territory. It also ended US support for the Saudis in the war.

Biden sent the US envoy to Yemen, Tim Lenderking, to the region to negotiate a political settlement. Lenderking said earlier this month that the Houthis had an unspecified ceasefire proposal before them for a “number of days,” without elaborating. He reportedly met with Houthi officials during a trip to Oman in February, something the State Department has refused to acknowledge.

In a statement, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he had spoken with the Saudi Arabian foreign minister about the war.

Blinken supports efforts “to end the conflict in Yemen, beginning with the need for all parties to commit to a ceasefire and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid,” the statement said.

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Associated Press writers Ahmed al-Haj in Sanaa, Yemen, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed.

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