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Yemen violence strains ceasefire

TAIZ, YEMEN - NOVEMBER 17: Popular Resistance forces, supporting forces loyal to Yemen's President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi patrol around the Ecahmiliye neighborhood in northern Taiz, after seizing the neighborhood from Houthis on November 15, 2016. ( Abdulnasser Alseddik - Anadolu Agency )

A Saudi Arabian 48-hour truce aimed at ending Yemen’s civil war came under continued pressure today as residents said fighting was still going on in parts of the country.

The ceasefire declared by the Saudi-led military coalition trying to restore the internationally recognised government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi raised hopes of an end to a 20-month conflict that has drawn in regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia and left Yemen on the verge of famine.

It appeared largely to be holding on Saturday but was strained by gun battles in the key western city of Taiz, as well as Iran-backed Houthi missile fire striking indiscriminately in areas on the Saudi-Yemen border.

These were responded to with airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition, reported by residents in villages east of the capital Sana’a.

A senior Saudi general accused the Houthis, the Shia militia that controls Sana’a, of launching these ballistic missiles in violation of the ceasefire.

The Soviet-era, and likely Iran-supplied, Tochka missile was fired into the eastern desert province of Marib, Brigadier General Ahmed Assiri told the Saudi-owned Al-Hadath TV. Assiri also said that the Houthis had breached the ceasefire 180 times in less than 24 hours.

Brigadier General Sharaf Luqman, a spokesman for Yemeni forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, allied with the Houthis, said the movement remained committed to a cessation of hostilities but was ready to “defend Yemen’s independence in the event of continuing aggression.”

Taiz under Houthi siege

Yemen’s Saudi-backed government, led by President Hadi, and the Iranian-aligned Houthis blamed each other for the fighting in mountainous Taiz, where thousands of civilians are trapped and many have been wounded. Government forces this week made advances on Taiz, threatening to break a year-long Houthi siege that has led to miserable humanitarian conditions.

Saudi Arabia and allied Arabian Gulf states began a military campaign in March last year to prevent the Houthis and forces loyal to Saleh taking control of the whole country.

The Saudi-led coalition expelled enemy fighters from the southern port city of Aden last summer but the Houthis continue to hold swathes of territory including the capital, with help from Saleh loyalists.

A coalition statement carried by the Saudi Press Agency said the truce had started at noon (0900 GMT) and could be extended if the Houthis showed commitment to it and allowed aid into areas such as Taiz.

Meanwhile, the Houthis said that the ceasefire was too short notice for them to make preparations to allow aid into the besieged city. This comes despite the Houthis welcoming the ceasefire and agreeing to a pause in violence.

Hours before the ceasefire began, a soldier in Saudi Arabia was killed by a missile fired by the Houthis, the Interior Ministry confirmed, in a cross-border attack that the Saudis insist must stop.

The coalition said in its statement that any “military movements” by Houthi forces would be “addressed by the coalition”, and that controls imposed on Yemen’s ports and airports to stop arms getting to the enemy will remain in place.

The near-blockade on air, sea and land access has caused food shortages in a country that imports over 90 per cent of its staple foods, driving up prices and making it impossible for many Yemenis to feed themselves and their families.

No side has emerged as the dominant force in a war that has dragged into stalemate, displaced more than 3 million people, killed 10,000 people and given room for a powerful branch of Al-Qaeda to expand its operations alongside Iran-backed extremist Shia militias.

The frontline has changed little over recent months, with the Houthis and their allies holding most of Yemen’s northern half, including the capital Sana’a, while forces loyal to Hadi share control of the rest of the country with local tribes.

Hadi’s government says the Houthis illegally seized power in a coup backed by Iran, and demands that they quit the cities they seized and hand over heavy weapons before any political settlement starts.

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