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Yemen truce comes into effect under UN plan

EU foreign policy chief said the truce should be a first step towards resuming UN-led peace talks
Almost 6,900 people have been killed in the fighting (AFP)

A ceasefire took effect in war-ravaged Yemen just before midnight on Wednesday under a United Nations plan, as warring parties face mounting pressure to end more than 18 months of fighting.

The UN special envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, had announced on Monday that the cessation of hostilities would take effect "at 23:59 Yemen time (2059 GMT) on 19 October 2016, for an initial period of 72 hours, subject to renewal".

There was heavy fighting in Yemen hours before the truce began.

It is the sixth attempt to end the bloodshed since a Saudi-led Arab coalition intervened in March 2015 to support the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi after Houthi rebels overran much of Yemen.

Saudi Arabia's King Salman also agreed to the ceasefire, Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV reported on Wednesday. 

Civilians have paid the highest price in a country that was already the Arabian Peninsula's poorest.

Almost 6,900 people have been killed - more than half of them civilians - while another three million are displaced and millions more need food aid.

A UN report said air strikes by the coalition were suspected of causing around half of all civilian deaths, while rebel-affiliated groups were responsible for about a quarter.

Clashes killed dozens of fighters across the country on Wednesday, including in combat near the Saudi border and around the rebel-held capital Sanaa, military sources said.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the truce should be a first step towards resuming the UN-led peace talks.

"The ceasefire must be respected by all sides and its duration extended so as to create the necessary conditions for such negotiations," she said.

Mogherini added that the halt in fighting will allow urgent humanitarian assistance to reach large parts of the population that have suffered drastic shortages.

On Tuesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry encouraged the "unconditional renewal" of the ceasefire.

The last ceasefire attempt, which began in April alongside UN-brokered peace talks in Kuwait, failed with both the rebels and the coalition accusing each other of breaches.

After peace talks collapsed in August, fighting escalated until an 8 October Saudi-led coalition air strike, which the UN said killed more than 140 Yemenis and wounded at least 525 at a funeral in Sanaa.

The United States announced an "immediate review" of its intelligence and refuelling assistance to the coalition, whose investigative team then released findings from a probe of the incident.

The probe said a coalition aircraft "wrongly targeted" the funeral based on "incorrect information".

In another major development, the US Navy targeted Houthi rebels directly for the first time.

On 13 October, the US military hit radar sites which the US said were involved in missile launches against one of its warships and other vessels.

Yemen's Houthi rebels are allied with members of the security forces loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

They control the capital Sanaa and other territory, but coalition-backed forces earlier pushed them back from the southern port of Aden and adjacent areas.

Both the rebels and pro-government forces have come under increased international pressure to silence their guns.

Yemen’s Foreign Minister Abdulmalek al-Mekhlafi said on Monday that Hadi agreed to the halt in fighting if Houthi rebels adhere to it, activate a UN-backed committee to watch the truce, and lift the siege on the encircled city of Taiz.

Shortly before the truce, the rebels' military spokesman, General Sharaf Lokman, said his forces will respect the ceasefire as long as "the enemy" also abides by it on land, sea and air.

However, he urged his fighters to be ready to retaliate against "all aggression".

Before the truce at least 30 Houthis and five pro-Hadi fighters died during heavy artillery bombardments near the Red Sea, in Hajja province, a loyalist statement said.

There were also coalition air strikes on rebel tanks and other reinforcements in the northern Saada province and Omran, a military source said.

East of the capital, in Marib province, the coalition intercepted two ballistic missiles, a loyalist officer said.

On Wednesday, the UN's humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, Jamie McGoldrick, told reporters he hopes the truce will provide a chance for aid workers to reach areas isolated by the fighting.

In spite of Wednesday's violence, Mustafa Alani, a senior advisor to the Gulf Research Centre, said the prospects for peace were growing.

"I am more optimistic, actually, because the environment is completely different from the previous one," he told AFP.

Saudi Arabia and Washington accuse Iran of arming the rebels, charges Tehran denies.

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