Yemen offers truce to insurgents

 

Yemen has offered a conditional cease-fire to the Shia rebels it is battling in the north, following international concern over a deadly airstrike against civilians displaced from the war zones.

Within hours, however, both sides released statements accusing the other of breaking the cease fire. According to the statements, clashes resumed in the front-line town of Harf Sufyan.

The government offer comes after both the UN and the US urged a halt to the fighting to allow food supplies and medical aid to reach the tens of thousands of civilians that have fled their homes.

Rebels responded cautiously to the offer, which comes right before the Eid al-Fitr holiday ending the fasting month of Ramadan, and told the Associated Press they would monitor the situation on the ground first.

On Wednesday, government jets bombed a makeshift camp packed with displaced people near Harf Sufyan, and witnesses put the death toll at 87, most of them women and children.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon called for an investigation and the US embassy in San'a expressed concern over the strikes on Friday. Both also urged an end to the fighting, echoing earlier calls by aid agencies.

The government said the cease-fire was in response to the international calls and the approaching holiday. This is second cease-fire in two weeks, the last one fell apart in a matter of hours. "The government will cease military operations in the north western regions from this point forward," said the statement.

The government has set down five conditions for the end of hostilities, including removing road blocks, withdrawal of rebel forces, release of detained military personnel and property, and abiding by the constitution and law.

The rebels, however, have insisted on an unconditional cease-fire. "We welcome the cease-fire offer, we have been seeking an unconditional cease-fire deal for a long time. As for the terms, they should be discussed in a dialogue at a negotiating table," said rebel spokesman Mohammed Abdel-Salam.

The Shia tribesmen, led by Abdel-Malek al-Hawthi, have so far refused to hand over their weapons or release any war prisoners. They accuse the government of not fulfilling its obligations under previous agreements, including freeing rebel detainees, paying compensation to victims and rebuilding villages ravaged by fighting.

Yemen's government is embroiled in a five-year conflict with Shia rebels in the country's north. The rebels complain their needs are ignored by the government and that the government is increasingly allying with hard-line Sunni fundamentalists, some of whom consider Shia as heretics.

Some 150,000 Yemenis have fled their homes since fighting began in 2004, cramming into camps, schools and barns as aid groups struggle to bring in supplies.

Shias make up 30 per cent of the population of 22 million. They are Zaydis, members of a Shia sect that includes the president himself.

Fighting escalated dramatically in early August, when the rebels captured an army post on a strategic highway between the capital and the Saudi border. Fighting has come within 75 miles of the capital.

Yemen's attempts to deal with its multiple threats are made harder by its crippling poverty - unemployment is 35 per cent, illiteracy 50 per cent. The oil production that provides the government with 70 per cent of its revenue is down about 40 per cent as wells run dry.

AP