The United Nations said Thursday that Yemen’s warring parties have agreed to renew a nationwide truce for another two months. The development offered a glimmer of hope for the country, plagued by eight years of civil war, though significant obstacles remain to lasting peace.
The cease-fire between Yemen’s internationally recognized government and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels initially came into effect on April 2 — the first nationwide truce in the past six years of the conflict in the Arab World’s most impoverished nation. However, both sides have at times accused the other of violating the cease-fire.
The announcement, which is the outcome of UN efforts, came only few hours before the original truce was set to expire later on Thursday.
“The truce represents a significant shift in the trajectory of the war and has been achieved through responsible and courageous decision-making by the parties,” UN Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg said in a statement. He said he will mediate talks between the warring parties to solidify the new truce, and to eventually reach a political settlement to end the conflict.
President Joe Biden welcomed the truce renewal and stressed that ending the war in Yemen has been a priority of his administration. “I urge all parties to move expeditiously towards a comprehensive and inclusive peace process. Our diplomacy will not rest until a permanent settlement is in place,” he said.
The fighting in Yemen erupted in 2014, when the Houthis descended from their northern enclave and took over the capital of Sanaa, forcing the internationally recognized government to flee into exile in Saudi Arabia. A Saudi-led coalition entered the war in early 2015 to try to restore the government to power.
The conflict, which eventually descended into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has killed over 150,000 people, including over 14,500 civilians, and created one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, pushing millions of Yemenis to the brink of famine.
In his statement, Biden also lauded the Saudi government for what he said reflected “courageous leadership” in endorsing and implementing the UN-led truce. His remarks came as overriding U.S. strategic interests in oil and security have recently pushed the administration to rethink the arms-length stance that Biden pledged to take with the Saudis as a candidate for the White House.
Biden's initial position was provoked by the gruesome 2018 killing at the Saudi Consulate in Turkey of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Khashoggi was killed by a team of Saudi agents, including individuals who worked for the crown prince’s office. His remains have not been found.
The provisions of the original truce included reopening the roads around the besieged city of Taiz, establishing two commercial flights a week between Sanaa and Jordan and Egypt, and also allowing 18 vessels carrying fuel into the port of Hodeida. Both Sanaa and Hodeida are controlled by the Houthi rebels.
Later Thursday, the Yemeni government's presidential council expressed its support for the UN envoy's efforts and reiterated that the Houthis must be prompted to re-open roads around Taiz, according to the state-run SABA news agency.
In a statement, Mahdi al-Mashat, head of the Houthis supreme political council which runs rebel-held areas, said that the Houthis decided to “respond positively” to the UN envoy's push to renew the truce in order “to alleviate the suffering" of the Yemeni people, and to allow more time for the implementation of all provisions included in the original cease-fire agreement.
In recent weeks, commercial flights have resumed from Sanaa, and fuel shipments have arrived. However, the opening of the roads around Taiz remains a contested issue and both sides have yet to agree on a framework for lifting the blockade on the key city.
Fighting, airstrikes and bombardment have subsided since the truce first started in early April, and the rebels have ceased their cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two pillars of the Saudi-led coalition.
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The Norwegian Refugee Council welcomed the truce extension as a sign of a “serious commitment” to end the conflict. The council's Yemen director, Erin Hutchinson, expressed hopes that the cease-fire could lead to the reopening of roads so that humanitarian aid could reach the needy, and so that more displaced Yemenis could return to their homes.
Many Yemenis and observers point to the fact that fighting has been reduced, but not completely stopped. According to the Norwegian humanitarian group, the original truce resulted in a more than 50-percent drop in the number of civilian casualties in the first month.
The head of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Nayef al-Hajraf, welcomed the truce extension in a statement, expressing hopes it would be conducive to a comprehensive peace in Yemen. The Saudi-based GCC — representing Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — makes economic policies for the bloc, serving as a Sunni-led Arab counterweight to Shiite power Iran.
Also, the European Union's delegation to Yemen tweeted that it welcomed the move, stressing the importance of lifting the blockage on the city of Taiz.
Earlier this week, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Yemen's humanitarian needs remain high despite improvements since the truce, with some 19 million expected to face hunger this year, including more than 160,000 who will face famine-like conditions.
“Aid agencies need $4.28 billion to assist 17.3 million people across the country this year,” but only 26 percent of that amount has been funded, he said, urging donors to pledge money and turn pledges into cash.