Sporadic fighting mars first day of cease-fire in Yemen

AP News
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Posted: Apr 11, 2016 4:31 PM
Sporadic fighting mars first day of cease-fire in Yemen

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — A U.N.-brokered cease-fire was mostly holding across war-torn Yemen on Monday with scattered violations reported by both sides. Much of the remaining violence took place in the besieged city of Taiz, where shelling killed at least one person and wounded five, according to residents.

There were also sporadic exchanges of gunfire and air strikes in other parts of the country after the truce between the Saudi-led coalition, which backs Yemen's internationally recognized government, and the Shiite rebels known as Houthis went into effect at midnight Sunday.

The truce is meant build confidence between Yemen's warring sides ahead of the U.N.-sponsored peace talks scheduled to take place in Kuwait on April 18.

Residents of Taiz, which has been besieged by the rebels for over a year, are blaming the Houthis for overnight shelling that killed one civilian and wounded four. According to the military council of Taiz resistance, which is loyal to the internationally recognized government, there were a total of 25 violations by the Houthis; meanwhile the Houthis claimed 56 cease-fire violations by the pro-government forces across the country. Residents also said three airstrikes hit Houthi positions during the day in Taiz.

Mohammed al Qubati, information minister for the internationally recognized government, acknowledged that there were dozens of violations. Speaking to The Associated Press from Saudi Arabia, he said, "We urge self-restraint."

In the capital, Sanaa, which has been under Houthi control since September 2014, the coalition largely halted its airstrikes.

In the district of Naham, on the fringes of Sanaa province, fighting continued overnight between armed men backing the government and the Houthis, according to residents there. The residents in both in Taiz and in Naham spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for their safety.

The Saudi-led coalition has said it will commit to the open-ended cease-fire and halt its yearlong air campaign against the rebels.

Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdel Salam wrote on his Facebook page: "We express our condemnation to the continuation of the airstrikes and the troops' movement which took place in some fronts today ... We stress the importance of abiding by the agreement and the dangerous continuation of the military action threatens to curb the peace process."

In Washington, the U.S. State Department hailed the cease-fire, despite the difficulties. Spokesman Mark Toner called the cessation of hostilities, "crucial to the people of Yemen," and added, We urge all parties to ensure they are cooperating fully with humanitarian workers as they seek to access all parts of the country."

Earlier, the alliance's spokesman, Brig. Gen. Ahmed al-Asiri, told The Associated Press that the coalition's commitment to the truce will depend on the extent that the Iranian-backed Houthis abide by the Security Council resolution stipulating the rebels pull their forces from the cities and hand over heavy weapons to the government.

The U.N. special envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, urged all parties to work to ensure that the cessation of hostilities is "fully respected."

"This is critical, urgent and much needed. Yemen cannot afford the loss of more lives," Ahmed said in a statement Monday. He added that preparations were underway for Kuwait peace talks, which are to focus on key issues such as withdrawal of militias and armed groups, handover of heavy weapons and resumption of an all-inclusive political dialogue.

The coalition, comprised of mostly Arab countries, launched its campaign against the Houthis in March 2015, several months after the rebels overran Sanaa and forced the internationally-backed government into exile. Since then, more than 9,000 people have been killed in Yemen's civil war, including more than 3,000 civilians, according to the United Nations. The fighting has also displaced 2.4 million people.

One of the most daunting consequences of the war has been the spread of hunger across Yemen. The impoverished nation of 26 million, which imports 90 percent of its food, already had one of the highest malnutrition rates in the world, but in the past year the statistics have surged.

The number of people considered "severely food insecure" — unable to put food on the table without outside aid — went from 4.3 million to more than 7 million, according to the World Food Program. Ten of the country's 22 provinces are classified as one step away from famine.

The U.N. children's agency warned that the children of Yemen are bearing the brunt of the conflict. UNICEF said in a statement that at least 900 children have been killed — a seven-fold increase, compared to the number of fatalities among children in 2014. The agency also said that child recruitment increased five times, and that the "disruption in the delivery of basic services has deprived thousands of children of their fundamental rights to education and health."

The U.N. also said Monday that it had successfully launched a three-day polio vaccination campaign targeting five million children in Yemen.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the campaign started Sunday, coinciding with the cease-fire.

He called the campaign, supported by UNICEF, the World Health Organization and World Bank, "a good sign" and "a very important step" in advance of the talks.

According to WHO, Yemen conducted large-scale immunizations targeting children under the age of five from 2011-2014. As late as last November, vaccinations of children were taking place in Yemen's rebel-held capital, Sanaa.

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Associated Press writers Maggie Michael in Cairo, Matthew Lee in Washington and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.