Saudi Arabia agreed to halt the bombing of rebels in Yemen for five days next week, while warning it will step up airstrikes before that in retaliation for the killing of Saudi civilians.
Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir announced the proposed cease-fire, due to start at 11 p.m. local time on Tuesday night, at a press conference in Paris with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been pressing for a humanitarian pause.
Al-Jubeir said the halt will stay in effect only if it’s honored by the Houthi rebels, the target of more than six weeks of airstrikes by a Saudi-led coalition. “The requirements are first and foremost that there’s a commitment by the Houthis and their allies” to abide by it, Al Jubeir said. There was no immediate statement from the Houthi leadership, and officials from the group couldn’t immediately be reached.
The Saudis began bombing in an effort to restore the government of President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi, who was driven from power by the Houthis. While the U.S. has expressed support for the campaign, the effort hasn’t succeeded in rolling back the rebel gains. More than 650 civilians have died in the airstrikes and fighting, according to the United Nations.
The bombing may be intensifying before it stops. The Houthi stronghold of Sa’ada in north Yemen and surrounding villages came under heavy bombardment late on Friday, and all communications with the city were cut, Mohamed al-Bokheti, a member of the Houthi political bureau, told Lebanon’s al-Mayadeen television station, speaking from the capital Sana’a.
“They are talking about a truce, and in the meantime they are bombing Sa’ada,” he said.
Earlier, Saudi television had called on civilians in Sa’da and nearby areas to stay clear of potential targets, and Ahmed Asseri, a Saudi military officer and coalition spokesman, warned of imminent strikes. Asseri said the cities would become a “war zone” in retaliation for mortar strikes on a Saudi border town that killed several civilians this week.
The past few days have also seen fierce clashes around the southern port of Aden, one of the last strongholds of pro-Saudi forces in Yemen.
In Paris, Kerry warned that Yemen risks a “humanitarian catastrophe.” He said that if the five-day cease-fire holds, it will create “the possibility of a longer period of time for the political process to help resolve these differences.”
The Saudis and their allies on the Gulf Cooperation Council accuse Iran of supporting the Shiite rebels in Yemen with weapons and money. Western diplomats have expressed skepticism about the degree of Iranian involvement.
Kerry spoke after meeting in the French capital with the six oil-rich monarchies that make up the GCC, whose leaders will attend a summit next week with President Barack Obama at Camp David in Maryland.
The meeting is meant to provide political and security assurances to Arab allies of the U.S. who are skittish about progress toward a nuclear deal with Iran. Kerry said that under discussion is “a new set of security initiatives that will take us beyond anything that we have had before.”