Peace talks between Yemen's internationally recognized government and the country's Houthi rebels began under U.N. supervision Tuesday in Switzerland, aimed at clinching a permanent cease-fire and a political transition, the world body said, as the guns went quiet across Yemen and air raids from a Saudi-coalition targeting the rebels were halted.
The week-long cease-fire, meant to give the warring factions a chance to find a solution to the conflict that has collapsed the Arab world's poorest country, went into effect at noon on Tuesday. But only Yemeni government officials were able to confirm it, as Houthi rebel leaders could not be immediately reached for comment on how the truce was holding.
Yemen has been torn by fighting pitting the Houthis, and army units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, against an array of forces, including the internationally recognized government, which is backed by the Saudi-led military coalition and supported by the United States, and also southern separatists and other fighters.
In a statement, U.N. special envoy for Yemen Ismail Cheikh Ahmed said the talks in Switzerland “should mark the end of military violence in Yemen.” But previous U.N. efforts have failed to narrow differences, and past cease-fires were broken.
The World Health Organization (WHO) also said it hopes a cease-fire in Yemen will allow for deliveries of needed medical aid. In May, a five-day pause in fighting proposed by Saudi Arabia allowed some aid into Yemen before the coalition resumed airstrikes, blaming cease-fire violations by the rebels.
According to the U.N., the war in Yemen has so far killed at least 5,878 people since March, when the fighting escalated after the Saudi-led coalition began launching airstrikes targeting the rebels. A year ago September, the Houthis overran Sanaa, the capital, and subsequent fighting displaced Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi first to Aden in the south and then to neighboring Saudi Arabia in March where he lived in exile before finally returning last month to Yemen.
The Saudi-led coalition sees the Shia Houthis as proxies of Iran, the chief regional enemy of Riyadh and its Gulf Arab allies, and has vowed to prevent the group from overrunning Yemen. Iran, which is broadly supportive of the Houthis but denies supporting them militarily, has decried what it views as Saudi-led aggression in Yemen and repeatedly called for diplomatic means to resolve the country’s political future.
Just hours before the cease-fire started Tuesday, the coalition and pro-government forces seized the Red Sea island of Zuqar from the Houthis.
Past efforts to end the violence have ended in failure, as the government insisted the Houthis comply with a U.N. resolution that requires them to return seized weapons and territory they had captured over the past year, including the capital, Sanaa. In response, the Houthis demanded negotiations over the country's political future.
The two sides had initially agreed to halt fire at midnight Monday but the coalition delayed the truce to midday Tuesday, without elaborating.
In Geneva, U.N. spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said a total of 24 people were taking part in the “open-ended” talks. U.N. officials have declined to specify the location of the talks, but Swiss public radio on Monday said they were to take place in the village of Macolin, near the Swiss town of Biel.
Al Jazeera and wire services