ABU DHABI (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday that Yemen’s Houthi group and the Saudi-led coalition fighting it had agreed to a ceasefire from Thursday, as Washington presses for an end to the war before President Barack Obama leaves office.
The internationally recognized Yemeni government quickly rejected the move, complaining of being bypassed. But it may have little choice if Saudi Arabia, which supports President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi militarily and financially, threw its weight behind the move.
More than 10,000 people have been killed and over 3 million displaced in the past 20 months in a war that has been overshadowed by the Syria conflict but which has created a humanitarian catastrophe.
Kerry, in what could be his last trip to the Gulf before Obama’s term ends in January, is seeking a breakthrough to end the fighting between the Houthis, allied to Iran, and the Saudi-backed government of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Speaking after talks in Oman, which is close to the Houthis, and in the United Arab Emirates, a key member of the Saudi-led coalition, Kerry said he had presented Houthi delegates with a document outlining a ceasefire and peace deal.
He said the Houthis, whom he met in Oman on Monday night, had agreed to a truce from Thursday, provided the other side implemented it. “And thus far the Emiratis and the Saudis ...they have both agreed to try to move forward with this,” he said.
The ceasefire would be on the same terms as an earlier one that ran from April until the end of August, when U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Kuwait ended in disagreement.
Oman confirmed that delegates from the Houthi-controlled Yemeni capital Sanaa had agreed to abide by a cessation of hostilities starting on Nov. 17, provided that the other side in the conflict abided by it, state news agency ONA reported.
ONA quoted a foreign ministry official as saying that peace talks would resume at the end of November on the basis of a plan presented by the U.N. envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed.
Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s plan provides for the Houthis to withdraw from some cities captured since 2014 and for a new government comprising all parties, including the Houthis, be established to run the country and prepare for elections.
Kerry said the parties “have agreed to work towards the establishing a new national unity government in a safe and secure Sanaa (the capital)... as a goal towards the end of the year”.
But Yemeni Foreign Minister Abdel-Malek al-Mekhlafi said Kerry’s announcement had not been coordinated with his government.
“The government was not aware of, nor is it interested in what Secretary Kerry announced, which represents a desire to scuttle peace efforts by trying to reach an agreement with the Houthis apart from the government,” Mekhlafi wrote on his official Twitter page.
“I believe the current U.S. administration is incapable of providing any guarantees to any party and what Kerry has said is no more than a media bubble at our people’s expense,” Mekhlafi told Qatar-based Al Jazeera television.
Yemen is a security concern for the United States, partly because al Qaeda has a strong local wing there. In August, Kerry proposed during a visit to Saudi Arabia that the Yemeni parties work simultaneously on setting up a unity government that would incorporate the Houthis while the armed group withdrew from cities it captured since 2014.
In his remarks in Abu Dhabi, Kerry said the Saudis, Emiratis and Houthis had agreed publicly for the first time to send representatives to a de-escalation and coordinating committee and accept the envoy’s roadmap as the basis for negotiations.
Hadi’s government says the Houthis have illegally seized power in a coup backed by Iran, and demands that they quit the cities they have seized and hand over heavy weapons before any political settlement starts.
The Houthis say they seized power to end corruption and to get rid of Islamist militants they say had expanded their influence during Hadi’s presidency.
Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Abu Dhabi and Reem Shamseddine in Beirut, writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Mark Trevelyan/Mark Heinrich