The fighting in the rugged mountains of north Yemen which threatened to drag regional powers into the conflict could halt at least for some time following a suspension of combat operations by government forces early on Saturday.
The declaration of a unilateral ceasefire on the eve of the Muslim festival, Eid al-Fitr, was posted on the Defence Ministry website. The five-week conflict has generated tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, amid allegations that the two countries are fighting a proxy war in Yemen. The rebel Zaydis are apparently close to the Iranians, while Saudi Arabia has reportedly been backing the Yemeni government, with military hardware and other support.
The government statement said fighting was being suspended to allow humanitarian aid to flow into the battle zone, where fighting has displaced thousands of civilians. Aerial bombardment on Wednesday killed 87 displaced people in a makeshift shelter in Harf Sufyan in the Saada mountain area, triggering calls for restraint from influential international quarters. Navi Pillay, the chief of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, said that an inquiry should be ordered into the air raid, which she described as “deeply disturbing”.
The Defence Ministry said the ceasefire could become permanent if Zaydi fighters accepted its five conditions, which included a demand that its foes “respect the ceasefire and the opening of roads, evacuate their positions and free captured civilians and soldiers.”
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Muhammad Abdulsalam, a spokesman for the Zaydis, who are also called Houthis, said his group was “ready to examine” the conditions. Mr. Abdulsalam said the group had stated its “commitment to a return to the situation as it was -- opening roads, pulling out of our positions and the return of the local authorities”.
The Yemeni government has accused the Zaydis, who are Shias, of attempting restoration of a Shia imamate dislodged in the 1960s. The Houthis, on their part say they are only interested in greater autonomy.