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Yemen and coronavirus: Saudi-led coalition announces two-week ceasefire

Coalition says pause in fighting is aimed at protecting conflict-ravaged country from threat of Covid-19
War in Yemen has killed more than 100,000 people and pushed more than 19 million to brink of starvation (Reuter/file image)

The Saudi-led coalition fighting Yemen's Houthi movement announced a two-week ceasefire aimed at protecting the conflict-ravaged country from the threat of coronavirus.

The coalition said the pause in fighting will begin at noon on Thursday and also gives Houthi rebels a chance to join UN-sponsored talks on a peace settlement.

"The kingdom has always been committed to reaching a comprehensive political settlement in Yemen, and based on our responsibility to bring stability to the region at such a critical time... has declared a two week long ceasefire initiative," said Khalid bin Salman, the deputy minister of defence and younger brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The minister said Yemen was particularly vulnerable to a Covid-19 outbreak, adding that Saudi Arabia would contribute $500m to the UN humanitarian response plan for Yemen in 2020 and $25m to help combat the pandemic.

"It is up to Houthis to put the health and safety of the Yemeni people above all else," Prince Khalid said.

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Officials added that the two week period could be extended. The Houthi movement has yet to announce whether it will follow suit on the ceasefire.

Yemen has endured years of chaos since Houthi rebels seized the capital Sanaa in 2014 and toppled then president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Arab states intervened in the country in March 2015 to prop up Hadi's beleaguered government.

Since then, the coalition has carried out more than 20,000 air attacks, with one-third striking non-military sites, including schools and hospitals, according to the Yemen Data Project

The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project (ACLED), an American NGO, has reported that more than 100,000 people may have died as a result of the war.

While Yemen has not reported any cases of the coronavirus, health experts and rights groups have said that it could wreak havoc on the country, which has a weakened healthcare system. 

The announcement comes days after the UN's envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, called for a halt in hostilities amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Mohammed Abdulsalam, a spokesman for the Houthi movement, said earlier on Wednesday that the group sent a comprehensive vision to the UN, which included an end to the five-year war.

"[Our proposal] will lay the foundations for a political dialogue and a transitional period," Abdulsalam said in a Twitter post.

Griffiths welcomed the coalition's announcement and called on both parties to "utilise this opportunity and cease immediately all hostilities with the utmost urgency, and make progress towards comprehensive and sustainable peace."

Back-channel talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis led to a lull in military action last year, but this year there has been a spike in violence that threatens fragile peace deals in vital port cities.