SANAA, Yemen — A U.N. plan for temporarily halting the fighting in Yemen to bring in desperately needed humanitarian aid got off to a shaky start, with clashes and airstrikes reported early Saturday.
The week-long pause to avert what the United Nations and aid agencies warn is a looming famine in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula country was to start just before midnight Friday.
But in the hours after midnight, residents reported that Houthi rebels fired mortar rounds and Katyusha rockets at the southern port city of Aden. Residents also said that a coalition led by Saudi Arabia continued carrying out airstrikes early Saturday against the rebels and allied fighters in the capital, Sanaa, as well as in the cities of Taiz and Aden.
On Thursday, a spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the warring parties had signaled backing for an “unconditional humanitarian pause” in a conflict that escalated when the Saudi-led coalition began airstrikes in March in support of Yemen’s embattled president.
However, a spokesman for the coalition denied Saturday that it had agreed to the U.N. proposal. Brig. Gen. Ahmad Asseri said the coalition did not receive instructions from the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, which the Houthis toppled in February, to halt the strikes.
Hadi and the rest of his cabinet operate from exile in Saudi Arabia and support the airstrikes. The United Nations and aid agencies say that more than 3,000 people have been killed and more than a million displaced in Yemen since the Saudi campaign began.
Speaking by telephone, Asseri said the United Nations’ proposed pause lacked the “minimum guarantees” sought by Hadi’s government, whose officials were not available to comment. Asseri said the plan did not contain “mechanisms to implement the pause.”
Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a senior Houthi official, accused Saudi Arabia of “violating” the terms of the temporary pause. Still, by Saturday afternoon, residents of Sanaa and Taiz reported that fighting had all but stopped. That raised hopes that imports of food and fuel, which have been severely restricted by an air and naval blockade imposed by the Saudi coalition, would be allowed.
“The shelling continued until 10:30 a.m., but since then the situation has been calm,” said Shihab al-Khateeb, 39, an accountant from Taiz.
Yassin Fuad, 33, who teaches English in Sanaa, said there “has been calm and there haven’t been any airstrikes since early morning.”
Aid groups were preparing Saturday to deliver food and medical supplies throughout Yemen to alleviate a crisis that the United Nations declared a level-3 humanitarian emergency, the highest on its scale. More than 20 million people need food and medical aid, and more than 9 million have little or no access to water, the United Nations reports.
Abeer Etefa, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program, said that the U.N. agency had organized three aid ships and that they were seeking to dock at Aden’s port. The agency was still waiting for clearances, she said, speaking by telephone.
Etefa added that in the past two weeks, the organization has been unable to deliver about 50,000 tons of food and fuel to badly affected areas because of damage to bridges and problems at checkpoints run by warring parties.
Naylor reported from Beirut.