GENEVA/DUBAI (Reuters) - A ceasefire took hold in Yemen on Tuesday as United Nations-sponsored peace talks opened in Switzerland in a new push to end months of fighting that has killed nearly 6,000 people and dragged in foreign powers, a U.N. spokesman said.
Army commanders and residents said the truce appeared to be largely holding despite some minor violations reported by both sides.
The United Nations said it was preparing to deliver medicine and food to Yemen this week, taking advantage of the seven-day ceasefire to address one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
“It is you who will decide whether peace will prevail or Yemen will be thrust further into darkness, tragedy and suffering,” U.N. Secretary-General Special Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed said in opening remarks to delegates in Geneva.
“Are you going to abandon Yemen and its people and lead the country into further violence and slaughter, or are you going to put Yemen first?,” he said.
The war has pitted the Houthis, a northern-based, Shi’ite movement who seized the capital Sanaa and much of the rest of the country since September 2014, against the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
A Saudi-led coalition, mainly comprised of Gulf Arab forces and aided by the United States, intervened in March with air strikes and ground troops and has rolled back some of the advances by the Houthis, who Riyadh says are a proxy for regional rival Iran. Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia in February but returned to loyalist-held Yemen last month.
Islamist militants are also involved in the conflict.
An earlier round of U.N.-backed indirect talks in Geneva in June ended without an agreement, with both sides blaming each other for their collapse. Unlike the previous round, the current session opened with an agenda being agreed and with senior delegates meeting face-to-face.
The main task for the negotiations will be agreeing on how to implement a U.N. Security Council Resolution in April that called on the Houthi movement to quit Sanaa and other cities.
Yemeni Prime Minister Khaled Bahah said in Qatar that the purpose of the talks was to win back the state seized by the Houthis. The option of using force to achieve that remained on the table, he said.
“Despite the optimism, and based on our experience, the talks won’t be easy,” Bahah said, according to the Qatari state news agency QNA.
“We are seeking to reach peaceful solutions but the stick will remain to achieve what could not be achieved in the talks.”
Before the ceasefire went into effect, residents said war planes struck the village of Bani al-Haddad, in northern Hajjah province on the border with Saudi Arabia, killing 13 people and wounding 20 others.
Two more residents died while medics were trying to evacuate them, they said.
A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition could not immediately be reached for comment.
In southwestern Yemen, coalition forces captured the Red Sea island of Zuqur, part of the Hanish Archipelago that controls the main sea route near the strait of Bab al-Mandab, Saudi state television reported, quoting the coalition spokesman.
The island contains the highest mountain in the area, which gives the coalition control over the waterway.
Residents also reported air strikes in Dhamar and Hodeida provinces and ground clashes in the city of Taiz, a focal point of fighting between the Houthis and supporters of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, as well as in Marib, east of Sanaa.
In northern Yemen, the coalition launched a military campaign in late March to stop the Houthis from taking complete control of Yemen. The Houthis accuse the coalition of launching a war of aggression.
The campaign has brought Hadi a little closer to running a united country again. A stalemate in the fighting and the rise of Islamic State in Yemen may convince the warring sides that a peace accord is the only way to end the conflict.
Months of fighting have devastated the country, depriving millions of civilians of essential daily needs, including food and medical supplies.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said 19 trucks, were ready in the southern port city of Aden, which is under government control, and the capital Sanaa, which is under Houthi control, to distribute medical supplies across Yemen.
Some 150 metric tonnes of supplies in WHO’s warehouse in Djibouti are also expected to be shipped to Sanaa on Dec 21 or 22, he said. From there, ships will take them to other Yemeni ports.
Additional reporting by Omar Fahmy in Cairo, writing by Sami Aboudi; editing by William Maclean and Angus MacSwan