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Saudi Arabia announces a cease-fire in Yemen as aid agencies brace for the spread of the coronavirus

A Yemeni man wears a protective face mask amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus at a market in the old quarter of Sanaa, Yemen, on April 8.
A Yemeni man wears a protective face mask amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus at a market in the old quarter of Sanaa, Yemen, on April 8. (Yahya Arhab/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

ISTANBUL — Saudi Arabia said Wednesday that it would temporarily halt its military operations in Yemen, a gesture Saudi officials said was aimed at jump-starting dialogue between Yemen's warring parties and staving off the spread of the coronavirus during one of the world's bloodiest civil conflicts.

The kingdom has been mired in Yemen’s war for more than five years after intervening to defeat an Iranian-allied rebel group known as the Houthis. But as the rebels have been able to retain control of Yemen’s capital and other parts of the country, the Saudis have intensified their efforts to extricate themselves from a conflict that has spawned one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

The cease-fire was set to begin Thursday at noon and could be extended, according to a statement carried by the official Saudi press agency. It followed calls by United Nations Secretary General António Guterres last month for an “immediate global cease-fire” in conflict zones that are especially vulnerable during the pandemic. Pope Francis made a similar appeal.

Saudi Arabia and Yemen’s rebels were making rare progress in peace talks. Then new violence flared.

Aid workers say the spread of the virus would devastate Yemen, a deeply impoverished country with a health system badly crippled by the war. No coronavirus cases have officially been reported in Yemen, but international aid agencies are bracing for an outbreak, in part because tens of thousands of Yemenis are being sent home from Saudi Arabia, which has more than 3,000 confirmed cases, according to an aid worker who focuses on Yemen.

The country’s internationally recognized government, which is backed by Saudi Arabia and is fighting the Houthis, had agreed to the latest Saudi cease-fire proposal, according to Saudi officials, who spoke to reporters Wednesday on the condition of anonymity to discuss an initiative that had not been officially announced.

It was not clear whether the Houthis would cooperate. Mohammed Abdul Salam, a spokesman for the movement, said in a Twitter message Wednesday that the Houthis had sent a proposal to end the war to the United Nations, but it did not specifically mention the Saudi initiative.

Numerous past cease-fires, offered by the Saudis or the Houthis, have faltered.

The latest is aimed at ending some of the deadliest clashes of the war, as the rebels and government forces battle in northern and central Yemen. Violence over the past 10 days has killed more than 270 people, government officials and tribal leaders told the Associated Press.

As coronavirus looms, U.S. proceeding with major reduction of aid to Yemen

The clashes, which began in mid-January, set back what diplomats said were promising direct negotiations between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis. The devastating coronavirus pandemic might have provided a new opportunity to halt the hostilities. United Nations and Western officials have been pressing the Yemeni parties and Saudi Arabia to reduce the violence and thus help halt the spread of the virus.

The fears that it could ravage Yemen are real: 50 percent or more of the country’s health infrastructure is destroyed or damaged, and Yemen’s people — many malnourished or otherwise weakened by war — are “highly susceptible to disease,” according to the aid worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the scenarios being considered by relief agencies.

“They don’t have the hospital facilities to respond to this. If they have 200 ventilators in the country, I’d be stunned,” the aid worker said, adding that the United Nations had mounted a concerted effort to prepare for any possible outbreak.

Missy Ryan contributed to this report from Washington.

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