Yemen ceasefire to begin Monday at midnight: official

A Yemeni woman walks past graffiti sprayed on the wall of the Saudi embassy in Yemen.
A Yemeni woman walks past graffiti sprayed on the wall of the Saudi embassy in Yemen.PHOTO: EPA

Aden (AFP) - A ceasefire in Yemen is set to begin on Monday at midnight, on the eve of UN-brokered peace talks in Switzerland, a government delegate at the negotiations told AFP.

Mueen Abdulmalek, a member of the government delegation, said "we hope the militias will commit to the ceasefire this time," referring to Iran-backed rebel forces in Yemen.

A presidency source confirmed the truce would begin at midnight local time (2100 GMT).

The Yemeni government and rebel representatives will meet in Switzerland Tuesday for UN-brokered peace talks, aimed at ending a deadly conflict exploited by militants.

More than a year after Iran-backed Shiite Huthi rebels swept into Yemen's capital Sanaa in the first sparks of civil war, no faction has emerged victorious.

And Arab states which intervened militarily in March to back President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi's government have found themselves drawn further into a quagmire in the deeply tribal country, home to what the United States considers to be Al-Qaeda's deadliest branch, experts say.

Hopes are high for the talks, which will be open-ended and held at an undisclosed location.

A truce is much needed in the Arabian Peninsula's poorest nation where an estimated 80 percent of the population of 26 million needs aid.

The United Nations says more than 5,800 people have been killed in Yemen, about half of them civilians, and more than 27,000 wounded since March.

Medical and military sources said on Sunday that at least 44 people have been killed in Saudi-led coalition air raids and fighting between loyalists and rebels ahead of the possible truce.

Previous UN efforts have failed to narrow differences, and past ceasefires have failed to hold.

But this time "there is a real chance for a breakthrough", said Emirati analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, who believes "there will be concessions from both sides".

"Gulf Arab states have reached a point where they are convinced it is about time a peaceful solution should be given a better chance" to succeed, he told AFP.

The option of a political solution was highlighted Thursday in Riyadh during the annual summit of the energy-rich Gulf Cooperation Council states, whose military involvement in Yemen is starting to weigh on their budgets, already hit by the fall in oil prices.

Yemen's conflict has pitted local forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition fighting in support of Hadi's government against the Huthis and renegade troops still loyal to wealthy ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The Houthis and Saleh hail from the Zaidi Shiite community, which makes up 30 per cent of Yemen's mostly Sunni population but is the majority in the northern highlands, including Sanaa province.

Oman, the only GCC country not in the coalition, has managed to "convince" rival regional heavyweights Iran and Saudi Arabia to "stop" their proxy war in Yemen, according to London-based analyst Abdelwahab Badrakhan.

The sultanate enjoys good relations with both Riyadh and Tehran.

The warring sides have agreed to sit at the same table despite mutual mistrust, mainly over UN Security Council Resolution 2216 which calls for rebels to withdraw from key cities and surrender their weapons.

The resolution is a mainstay of the position of the government and its Gulf backers.

"It is difficult to see the Houthis implement this resolution as this would signal an acknowledgement of their defeat," said Badrakhan.

According to UN envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, talks will focus on four main areas, including the terms of a permanent ceasefire and the withdrawal of armed groups from areas they control.

In 2014, the Houthis advanced from their northern strongholds before occupying government buildings in Sanaa in September that year and forcing Hadi into exile in Saudi Arabia months later.

In mid-November this year, Hadi returned to second city Aden which he declared the provisional capital.

Under cover of coalition warplanes and backed by Arab soldiers and heavy weaponry, the Popular Resistance forces - an alliance of southern separatists, local tribesmen and loyalist troops - have recaptured four southern provinces and Aden since July.

But they have failed to advance any further as rebel attacks on the south continue and Sunni extremist groups gain ground.

Attempts by pro-Hadi forces to retake the strategic province of Taez have also failed as fighting rages with little or no change on the ground.

The government's proposal for a truce followed last week's killing of the governor of Aden in a blast claimed by the Islamic State militant group.

In October, ISIS claimed a series of deadly attacks in Aden.

"Alarmed by the growing jihadist threat in territories under its control following the attacks in Aden, the government has no choice but to soften its position and act positively," said Badrakhan.

Abdulla agrees that ISIS and Al-Qaeda, already well established in Yemen's south, are "a common enemy that puts pressure on both sides of the Yemeni conflict, as well as Gulf countries".

"Nobody wants to see Daesh (Arabic acronym for ISIS) settle in Yemen and create a base as dangerous as that it has established in Syria," he said.