Shaky ceasefire holds in Yemen

December 16, 2015, 8:00pm

Tribal fighters take position on a street during fighting with Shi’ite rebels on the outskirts of Taiz, Yemen. (Abdulnasser Alseddik, AP) 

AFP on News24

Aden - A fragile ceasefire between Yemeni pro-government forces and Iran-backed rebels appeared to be generally holding on Wednesday despite breaches, as UN-sponsored peace talks entered a second day in Switzerland.

Although fighting has subsided, both sides traded blame for violations that have left at least 24 people dead since the truce began at midday (09:00 GMT) on Tuesday.

The Saudi-led coalition supporting embattled President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi accused the Huthi Shi'ite rebels of flouting the ceasefire from its very first hours, and acknowledged that it had "responded to these violations".

The rebels, meanwhile, accused the coalition of breaking the truce immediately after it began by carrying out "a series of raids on various provinces".

This mutual animosity underscored the challenge facing delegates at the talks which started in Switzerland on Tuesday.

Previous ceasefires have collapsed, and earlier UN efforts have failed to narrow differences between the warring rivals.

In one positive sign, tribal and military sources said loyalists and the rebels were expected to exchange hundreds of prisoners on Wednesday after weeks of mediation.

Mokhtar al-Rabbash, a member of the prisoners' affairs committee which is close to the government, said an agreement was in place to swap 375 rebels for 285 pro-Hadi fighters.

There was no immediate confirmation from the rebels. The International Committee of the Red Cross in Sana'a, which was involved in a previous prisoner swap, said the organisation was "not aware of such an exchange".

The UN envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, has called the truce "a critical first step towards building a lasting peace in the country".

A spokesperson for the Saudi-led coalition, Brigadier General Ahmed al-Assiri, said that the alliance's leadership "realises that this is an important and crucial phase to find a peaceful solution, but has a military commitment to respond to violations".

Saudi soldier killed

The coalition launched an air war against the rebels in March after they forced Hadi to flee the country, and has also sent in ground troops.

On Wednesday, military sources reported mortar and gunfire by rebels in several parts of the besieged provincial capital of Taez.

Pro-Hadi forces also attacked rebel positions in the city, a military source said, and fighting was also reported in Marib province east of the capital.

The coalition also said a Saudi soldier was killed "while protecting the kingdom's borders from aggressing rebels" in the kingdom's southwestern Najran area, SPA state news agency reported.

On Tuesday, just hours after the truce came into effect, rebel artillery and tanks killed seven civilians and wounded 15 in Taez, witnesses and medics said.

Rebels also killed 17 loyalist fighters and wounded 20 in Marib, a military source said.

Hadi has said he wants a seven-day truce to coincide with the peace talks to be "renewed automatically if the other party commits to it", the coalition said.

Little news has emerged from the open-ended talks in Switzerland.

UN spokesperson Ahmad Fawzi told reporters on Tuesday that 12 negotiators and six advisers made up each of the two delegations attending the talks.

"These consultations seek to establish a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire, secure improvements to the humanitarian situation and a return to a peaceful and orderly political transition," he said.

A ceasefire is much-needed in the Arabian Peninsula's poorest nation, where the UN says an estimated 80% of the population requires humanitarian aid.

The World Health Organisation representative in Yemen, Ahmed Shadoul, said the agency had received assurances that it was free to distribute medical supplies while the truce holds.

More than 5 800 people have been killed in Yemen - about half of them civilians - and more than 27 000 wounded since March, according to the UN.