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YEMEN: A cease-fire offer

September 19, 2009 |  7:14 am

Yemen artillery

Yemen called for a cease-fire Saturday with Shiite rebels in the northwest mountains, where tens of thousands of refugees have fled in recent weeks and international humanitarian organizations have condemned government airstrikes.

There were conflicting reports over whether the rebels would stop fighting. The insurgents, who belong to the Shiite Zaidi sect, said they were considering the offer. But a military website connected with the government reported that hostilities continued after the conditional cease-fire was announced to allow food and aid to reach the region.

The rebels rejected a similar government proposal several weeks ago. International alarm over the fighting – the latest spasm in a five-year insurgency – deepened Thursday when Yemeni airstrikes near the town of Harf Sufyan killed 87 people, many of them women, children and the elderly.

The United Nations has demanded an investigation into the deaths. Closed roads and heavy fighting have squeezed supply routes and limited access by humanitarian agencies. The revolt led by Shiite militant Abdul Malik Houthi began in 2004 in the Saada mountains along the border with Saudi Arabia. Fighting has since spread to neighboring Amran province and is reportedly seeping closer to the capital of Sana.     

Yemen boy

The conflict has agitated suspicions across the Arabian peninsula. The government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh has insinuated that Shiite-led Iran is supporting the rebels with money and weapons.  Such a prospect worries the Sunni-Muslim government of Saudi Arabia, which has grown concerned over what it considers as Iran’s attempts to stoke unrest in the Arab world. 

 The Yemeni government said the cease-fire was offered to honor Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. In a statement, the government also added that its overture was “in response to all appeals of Saada-based citizens and international relief organizations, particularly an appeal of the U.N. Secretary General, to access to displaced people and the war-affected areas."

The government's ceasefire conditions include that rebels withdraw from Saada, disband checkpoints, return weapons seized from government forces and release prisoners. 

Media reports quoted rebel spokesman Mohammed Abdel-Salem as saying: "We welcome the cease-fire offer. We have been seeking an unconditional cease-fire deal for a long time. As for the terms, they should be discussed in a dialogue at a negotiating table."

Nearly 150,000 people have fled their homes over the last five years. The rebels allege they are a persecuted minority and want a return to the clerical rule abolished in the 1962 national election. President Saleh is a Zaidi, but the insurgents claim his government is growing to close to Sunni leaders in Yemen and across the Middle East.

-- Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo and Haley Sweetland Edwards in Sana

Photos: Yemen artillery and an image taken from video released by rebels purportedly showing a boy wounded by government airstrikes. Credit: Associated Press