Yemen marks cease-fire with Houthi rebels

A cease-fire between the Yemen government and Houthi rebels aims to end a six-year conflict and refocus efforts on fighting Al Qaeda's growing presence.

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A ceasefire between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels based in the country’s north took effect Friday.

The truce follows President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s announcement that no more military operations against the Houthi clan would be launched. The agreement aims to end a six-year conflict that has also drawn in neighboring Saudi Arabia. If the cease-fire holds, it will allow the Yemeni government to focus on the fight against Al Qaeda-linked militants in the country.

(Click here for a map of Yemen.)

According to the Guardian, both sides have agreed to uphold the truce, overseen by a committee of government and rebel representatives. The truce binds the militants to disarm, free captured soldiers, evacuate hideouts, follow the Constitution, and vow not to attack Yemen's northern neighbor, Saudi Arabia.

"We have decided to halt military operations in the north-western region … to stop bloodshed, bring peace to the region, the return of displaced people to their villages, reconstruction and achieve national reconciliation," Saleh's office said in a statement.

Agence France-Presse reports that Houthi rebels on Friday began clearing roadblocks and landmines, as is called for in the cease-fire agreement. The six-point truce requires the rebels to reopen three major northern mountain routes in the first stage of implementation: the road between Saada, Harf Sufian and the capital Sanaa; the road from Saada west to Malahidh, and the road from Saada east to Al-Jawf.

Army commanders have reportedly seen the guerrilla fighters start work on removing roadblocks and also on removing landmines from around some of their positions.

But it remains "unclear whether the cease-fire will hold,” reports the Los Angeles Times. Previous truce agreements have fallen through, and the Yemeni government’s war with Houthi rebels has “killed hundreds of people, displaced more than 200,000 villagers and strained impoverished Yemen's military.”

Saudi Arabia, which shares Yemen’s northern border, will also benefit from this cease-fire announcement. The oil-rich kingdom has been involved in Yemen’s conflict with Houthi rebels since last November, when a fighter killed a Saudi border guard. At the time, the Saudis responded with military force, reports The New York Times, though over the next three months, the Houthis' killed at least 133 Saudi soldiers in border skirmishes.

The agreement comes three weeks after a major international conference on Yemen, held in London, during which Western leaders urged an end to the festering Houthi conflict so that Yemen could focus more attention on fighting Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen. That threat has drawn renewed global concern since the group claimed responsibility for an attempt to bomb a passenger jet as it was approaching Detroit on Dec. 25.

However, Al Jazeera reports that rebel commander Abdul-Malik al-Houthi failed to many any commitment to stop fighting Saudi Arabia – called the sixth condition in the truce – in an audio message released via the internet on Saturday. "I announce our acceptance of the five conditions [for an end to the conflict] after the aggression stops," he said.

Saudi Arabia is seeking the implementation of this sixth condition. The Christian Science Monitor recently reported that Saudi Arabia has invested in efforts to ensure a rebel-free zone along its border with Yemen.

The Saudi involvement escalated in early November when Riyadh responded to a fatal cross-border raid with a full-scale artillery and air assault against the rebels.

Much is unclear about the fighting since then because both the Saudi and Yemeni governments have not allowed journalists to visit the area. But after more than two months, the Saudis appear unable to attain their goal of a rebel-free zone along the border extending several miles inside Yemen….

Riyadh has deep suspicions that Iran may be giving covert aid to the Houthi rebels, but there has been no clear evidence of that so far….

“I think the Saudis and Yemenis are convinced that ... they must inflict a heavy military defeat on the Houthis so they will be ready to talk from a position of weakness,” [Mustafa Alani, head of security and terrorism Studies at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center] said.

The cease-fire will help stabilize Yemen, which risks becoming a failed state, according to a Monitor contributing commentator. Yemen will now have to focus on curtailing the Al Qaeda threat, boosting economic development, tackling a secessionist movement in the south, and addressing an acute water shortage.

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