The Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi rebels in Yemen began a unilateral cease-fire on Wednesday, saying it hoped to pave the way toward ending a seven-year war that has shaken the security of the Persian Gulf and caused one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
The coalition cease-fire will overlap, at least through Wednesday, with a separate cease-fire declared by the Houthis over the weekend. That cease-fire was supposed to end Wednesday evening if the coalition did not meet the Houthis’ demands, which included lifting the blockade on their territory and releasing all of their prisoners.
The coalition is unlikely to agree immediately to all the demands, but diplomats involved in the process expressed hope that progress toward a broader truce could be made before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which is expected to begin on Saturday.
“It’s one step, hopefully in the right direction,” said Afrah Nasser, a Yemen researcher for Human Rights Watch. “But it’s still not enough and the scale of the tragedy in Yemen deserves more and more effort.”
Ms. Nasser said greater international involvement from bodies such as the United Nations Security Council is needed to push the sides toward real peace.
“Without political and international political backing, I think there is a great risk that we will go back to point zero,” she said.
The war in Yemen began in 2014, when Houthi rebels seized control of the capital, Sana, and much of the country’s northwest, sending the government into exile. A military coalition of Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia, intervened in 2015, aiming to push back the Houthis and restore the government.
The fighting then settled into a stalemate that has ravaged the economy of the already-poor country and set off epidemics of cholera and other illnesses.
The war has killed tens of thousands of people inside Yemen and is increasingly spilling outside its borders. The Houthis, who have received military and political support from Iran, have launched drone and missile attacks at Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, another coalition member.
An attack last week claimed by the Houthis on an oil facility set two storage tanks in the western Saudi city of Jeddah ablaze, sending up a giant fireball and filling the sky with black smoke. The Houthis have also claimed attacks on the Emirates, with which Yemen does not even share a border.
The United States has not participated directly in the war, but has sold Saudi Arabia and its allies much of their military hardware and provided them with help defending against attacks from Yemen.
The United Nations and a range of Arab and Western diplomats have been trying for years to end the war, with little progress. The warring sides announced unilateral cease-fires in April 2020, not long after the start of the coronavirus pandemic, but failed to make headway on a broader peace and returned to fighting.
The coalition announced its cease-fire at a Yemen-focused conference in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, bringing together officials from around the Persian Gulf and representatives of the Yemeni government and allied factions.